'When No One Is Watching' Isn't Your Typical Thriller

In fact, the plot is all too real for Black and brown communities.

when no one is watching
(Image credit: Design By Morgan McMullen)

Those familiar with Alyssa Cole's romance novels didn't know what to expect from her first thriller, When No One Is Watching, but it's safe to say fans were not disappointed. Cole weaves together themes of racism, class, and privilege, while providing readers with a gripping plot about Sydney, a Black woman, and Theo, her white neighbor, who explore the gentrification of their Brooklyn neighborhood from alternating perspectives. While the novel comes with some eery twists, ultimately it reminds us just how troublesome gentrification is in itself.

While the #ReadWithMC community overall enjoyed Cole's thriller, a few people found the ending a bit rushed and were frustrated that some plot points weren't fully developed. Still, it didn't take away from the characters' relatability—sometimes too relatable for those who have been directly impacted by gentrification. "I felt myself tense up at Sydney’s experiences," wrote one reviewer. "The outright racial abuse and violence and the more subtle microaggressions, which BIPOC know cause significant trauma...It reminded me of situations where I've been made to feel unwelcome and have been called aggressive."

Find out what else #ReadWithMC had to say about Cole's thriller, below, then pick up a copy for yourself here.

"Feelings, so deep in my feelings...⁣@alyssacolelit, we need to talk about your book When No One Is Watching because I am in a glass case of emotions. ⁣Where do I begin? First of all, my nerves are completely wrecked after reading this book (in the best way of course).

So, here's the deal: Sydney Green, you're in danger girl (in my Whoopi Goldberg voice), but you already know that. Book fam, my conspiracy theory brain was in overdrive as I, too, thought something was awry when a big corporation decided to take up shop in a predominately Black neighborhood in Brooklyn and folks started disappearing. Like, excuse me what? Where did they go?! My heart went out to Sydney as she tried to navigate the feeling that something sinister was going on (as her neighbors' homes were rapidly sold to white people almost overnight). All the while, my girl struggled with whether or not she was warranted in her suspicions due to the trauma of being previously gaslight by her former lover (he was SUPER TRASH FOR THAT).

Now, enter one of her new white neighbors, Theo, who is intrigued about his new neighborhood and attempts to immerse himself in the community. The funny thing is Theo's background is low key not what it seems, so there's that. When Theo and Sydney pair up to dig into the history of the neighborhood, it is refreshing to see how Theo is confronted with his white privilege. Can we get an amen? Oh, and he reconciled with how although he meant well, his ignorance about the ramifications of how he came to live in the neighborhood did not absolve him of being part of the problem. ⁣

I absolutely loved the duality of perspectives that Alyssa Cole provides as you get to see gentrification from the lens of a Black woman, who is desperately trying to hold onto her community's past and present, and white man, who is navigating his way in a Black space." —@readbyjules

"I loved the Black history tidbits that were thrown in there right from the beginning. I actually learned so much from this book and it was humbling to see how many terrible acts of violence against Black people don’t make it into the history books because white history is the standard and we continually get pushed out of places that we have cultivated for our own communities.

Can I also get a shout out for the mental health representation in this book? A Black woman going through depression, anxiety, and just overall struggling with the white people in her neighborhood while being a bad bitch and keeping it together? I loved how real and upfront Sydney was. Not to mention I just wanted to reach out and tell her I would shoot for her ANYDAY.

If you’re a lover of thrillers you know exactly how the book is set up, you know how it’s a slow burn from beginning to end and Alyssa really set it up to where when the fire caught? It caught fast and the last 100 pages of the book was by far the most exciting part and I don’t think I have been that pleased with the ending of a thriller in a very long time.

It was a completely different take on thrillers with the social commentary of gentrification and racism and the importance of history and different cultures to make one really important story about how we have to do better at making sure that we are silenced, and that we continue to make sure our history is written down so when people come in to take our spot we know what we’ve gone through and they know we won’t back down." —@beebutbookish

"When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole is a psychological thriller that explores Gifford Park, a neighborhood in Brooklyn that is seemingly evolving overnight. Lifelong Black residents of the neighborhood are suddenly vanishing without a trace with their beloved homes up for quick sales as white residents assume ownership. Is this just a case of sad economic reality? Or is something more sinister happening?

Cole creates a strong Black female heroine in Sydney Green. Sydney is smart and confident, whose expletive-laced dialogue masks a vulnerability. Fresh off a divorce, Sydney returns to her Brooklyn neighborhood to help care for her sick mother. She can’t help but notice the changes in her neighborhood and the character and structure of the people and places she has cherished as a child rapidly fading. Frustrated by a walking tour of her neighborhood that fails to recognize the contribution of Black residents, Sydney decides to create her own walking tour to preserve Black history.

Sydney reluctantly tasks her new neighbor, Theo, with helping her research. Theo is white and trying too hard to be 'woke,' often to the annoyance of Sydney. However, despite their initial dissonance, their bond deepens when Sydney and Theo begin to uncover mysterious happenings in the neighborhood that are not just Sydney’s imagination. Her neighbors are in real, impending danger.

Cole illuminates the history of gentrification, its effects on the housing market, and the overwhelmingly negative effects on predominantly Black communities. She also examines the issue of gaslighting as Sydney struggles to trust herself again after the lingering effects of her ex-husband’s abuse threaten her ability to see the true picture of what is happening in Gifford Park.

However, the thriller reveal appears to be so fantastical and far-fetched that it appears almost cartoon comical. As the novel races towards the ending, it devolves into a Kill Bill/ Quentin Tarantino bloodbath that undercuts the serious issues Cole examines. Despite the fact that the ending left me wanting [more], Cole’s examination of gentrification and the deterioration of Black communities makes it a worthwhile read." —@suzylew_bookreview

"What I enjoyed about the book: Cole does a great job of incorporating gentrification and racism into this novel. It definitely ruffles some feathers and sheds a light on whitewashing neighborhoods. I loved the premise of the book. It is a very timely piece, which has a different take on thrillers. It’s one of those unsettling thrillers that you could imagine happening in real life.

What did not work for me: It was very slow paced and the book did not give me thriller vibes. The pacing was off; it didn’t pick up until the last 50 pages and then ended abruptly. The dual POV storytelling didn’t work well for me and it easily could have been told from Sydney’s perspective. The white people in the book were notably in-your-face racist. I understand that it pushes the gentrification narrative of 'us vs them,' but I think more time could have been spent developing the missing Black characters or highlighting subtle covert racism.

This one wasn’t for me, unfortunately. Interesting concept. The book had a lot of potential, but I found the ending anticlimactic and it was not a thrilling read." —@that.overbooked.teacher

"YES! YES! YES! More of this please! I thought I was going to find this book a bit disappointing because of the hype, but it does live up to the hype and I would say READ IT!

In WNOIW we meet 30 year-old Sydney Green who returned to her childhood home in Brooklyn to live with her mother and childhood friend after the ending of her very brief marriage. Since her return, Sydney noticed a shift in the neighborhood, there are more for sale signs, the corner shop offering is changing, the jazz bar is gone, and the people she grew up with next door are moving out in droves. Added to this, Sydney is being hounded to sell her childhood home. Can she catch a break?!!!

One day, Sydney decides to go on a walking tour of her neighborhood, and during the tour the guide doesn’t have a great historical grasp and Sydney steps in (more times than one) to 'help' the guide out. In annoyance, the tour guide suggested she start her own tour. Being petty, Sydney spends the next weeks putting together a tour. She gets help from her new white neighbor, Theo. During their research they find out things about the neighborhood that lands them in deep trouble.

I really enjoyed Sydney and Theo’s adventure in this book. I felt seen that Sydney decided to do her tour out of pettiness and spent weeks putting together said tour OUT OF PETTINESS. On a serious note, this was my first book by Alyssa Cole and I really enjoyed her writing. The premise was fresh, the characters were layered and hilarious, and the writer did a solid job of telling the story. We get a historical look into Brooklyn, and white privilege, gentrification, racism, poverty, mental illness, racism, police brutality, and aging are all explored on this book.

I felt the book could have done better with pacing and the ending wrapped up in three pages. Overall, this was a solid read and not like any other thriller I have read." —@bookofcinz

"When No One Is Watching isn’t like any thriller I’ve read. The story is gripping and subtle, creeping up to you slowly. The story switches between the two main characters’—Sydney and Theo—perspectives, but they’re both unreliable narrators. Sydney has secrets that are threatening to spill out and Theo is very shady, which just adds to the eeriness. The pacing was a little off at times, but the narrative was very intriguing and kept me turning page after page. It was also an informative read, but not too much to the point where it feels like an essay, and since I love history, it was fun to learn some of the historical facts in the book!

When No One Is Watching is a thriller, but it also explores important issues like racism, gentrification, and the fight for social justice. Overall it was a very good read, perfect for fans of psychological thrillers and perfect if you liked Get Out!" —@teacupbooks_

"'When I shift, there’s the crunch of chips breaking and a bag crumpling, and shards of Cool Ranch Doritos stab into my back.' #WhenNoOneIsWatching

I definitely got Get Out vibes from this thriller about gentrification in Brooklyn, New York. Working in Oakland, California, I think this was a great social commentary on gentrification in general, but I definitely got a feel for this particular Brooklyn neighborhood while reading it. There are characters you will hate to love and it was such a page turner. I wanted answers! The pacing at the very end was very fast and I would've liked to have seen some aspects flushed out more clearly (no spoilers so I'll just leave it at that!). But a dynamic and timely book about the 'horrors' of gentrification. Great pick this month @marieclairemag for #ReadwithMC." —@readtotheend

"When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole! A unique take on gentrification in the form of a contemporary thriller set in Brooklyn, New York.

~ Made me think a lot about gentrification and its negative implications, and I liked that we saw what was happening from the perspectives of both someone who grew up in the neighborhood and someone moving in.
~ Full of interesting NYC history tidbits.
~ Strong narration on the audiobook front.
~ Reminded me of the movie Get Out...there was a creepy vibe throughout and you had to suspend reality a little.
~ Much different than your average played-out thriller themes.

~ A lot of build up to what felt to me to be a rushed ending.
~ There were some plot points that were never fully developed / left open ended. I read this as a book club pick, so I’ll be curious if maybe I just missed them.
~ The ending was just a tad too unbelievable (in this author’s defense, I feel this way about 95 percent of thrillers)."—@bookish_molly

"Alyssa Cole’s debut thriller has been one of my new favorites to handsell! Thrillers are not something I normally pick up, but I’m such a fan of Alyssa Cole’s I had to read this! I was excited to see her tackle a different genre and I think she did a phenomenal job!

WNOIW is a slow-burn psychological thriller told from two alternating perspectives, Sydney and her neighbor, Theo. Between her recently-failed marriage and her mother’s declining health, Sydney’s recently moved back to the Brooklyn neighborhood she grew up in. Unfortunately, Gifford Place is no longer the place of comfort and solace she once had, as the neighborhood is experiencing the effects of gentrification. In an attempt to to keep her community’s history alive she begins creating a walking tour and unintentionally gains Theo as a research assistant. This book STRESSED ME OUT (in a good way). It was suspenseful and entertaining, but I really loved all of the historical information she included! I thoroughly enjoyed this one." —@booked__and_busy

"This book started out great even though I didn’t feel like it was a thriller. And then boom! All of a sudden everything started to happen and I had to race to the end. It has great writing, great characters, and a great story." —@julieako

"What begins as a domestic drama before turning into a psychological thriller, detouring into romance, and taking the off-ramp in fourth gear to horror, is not for the faint of heart. It's an in-your-face read that might get under your skin at the beginning and make your skin crawl by the end (if not earlier but from bed bugs, before 'the web of conspiracy' reveals itself).

Dual narrated, in colorful language and jargon by black, 30-year-old, affably pugnacious Sydney Green whose life was 'a spin out on a slick road,' and by white, low-key Theo who feels 'the crushing stress of [his] life falling apart,' they're like opposite ends of the same stick. Both depressives have a keen self-awareness and are concealing their pasts, adding an element of suspense as we readers get their backstories piecemeal.

We also get a crash course in Brooklyn history. Author @alyssacolelit packs so much (so compactly!) into the book that is meticulously plotted, circling back to every detail in the storyline. I saw the twists coming, but not past the exit sign; and after reaching the action-packed conclusion, I didn't want to leave Gifford Place, or, more specifically, the longtime residents of Gifford Place.

Book lovers should get a charge out of reading this novel (which would make for a great screen adaptation)—unless they're Country Club Chads, in which case they'll be better off picking up #WilliamBHelmreich's The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide.

TL;DR: Not your garden-variety (npi) thriller. A disquieting, gripping, unforgettable story with the most realistic characters you'll find in a contemporary novel." —@cluedupreader

"I don’t know that I’ve read a thriller like this before. It was a fascinating look into the very real problems that people in our communities of color face every day, but it was also a look at the problems that these same communities have faced in the past. I know that historical fiction thriller is a thing, but this novel brought such an incredible historical perspective into this story that I forgot it was a thriller until things started getting intense. We are all fooling ourselves if we don’t take a step back to realize that the history represented within the pages of this book are more than likely the same histories that our own neighborhoods have seen. ⁣⁣

As I was reading this book, I wanted to know more. I needed more information on whether certain aspects of this story were true. It made me so angry to think that these things are happening today...right before our eyes and no one is doing anything about it. "—@thebookend.diner

"When No One Is Watching is a timely thriller about the underbelly of gentrification, which in itself is an African-American horror story. Layered with social commentary, dry humor, and the backdrop of Brooklyn, a borough that is the most infamous example of gentrification, this book will make you uncomfortable in unexpected, thought-provoking ways. A slow burner that goes from 0 to 100 real quick: Once it picks up, you won’t want to put it down." —@thejourneyofmybooks

"'I need to do this, even if only once, for the block party. Just to show that we were here, and we’re still here, and that fact matters, even if I throw out all the notes I made and the tour ends up being me bullshitting anecdotes about the people who made the neighborhood what it is.'

Gentrification gets even more sinister when one woman’s neighbors start disappearing, right when a huge corporation comes in with plans to 'revitalize' the neighborhood. One of the fall’s biggest releases, this is a thriller my colleagues have been talking about for months and it’s sooooo good and smart and tense. It's about race and gentrification and loss. Highly recommended for thriller readers interested in social issues." —@elizaisreading

"When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole is a very timely read that skillfully marries truth with fiction in a social justice thriller. Gentrification, conspiracy, disappearances, murder, romance...this book has it all and I was very much into it!⁣

This is Cole’s first foray into the thriller genre and I think she rocked it! Lots of real issues are brought to light that are both terrifying and all too real for Black communities." —@littlefoot_books

"All the stars to this creepy, historical, and wild novel! Sydney Green's Brooklyn neighborhood where she was born and raised is changing, Black families who've lived there forever are moving out or being forced out due to rising costs and shady real estate agents. As more white folx come into the neighborhood, Sydney works with a local white neighbor, Theo, who has his own mysterious background, to find out if something more sinister is afoot.

This book was hard to read for me. I felt myself tense up at Sydney’s experiences. The outright racial abuse and violence and the more subtle microaggressions, which BIPOC know cause significant trauma. Every 'veiled' and explicit threat made me tense up, made me flinch, made me think about what I would do in that situation. It reminded me of situations where I've been made to feel unwelcome and have been called aggressive. It physically hurt to read this book.

I had no clue what was going to happen. Was the sinister work actually sinister or was this just a novel about gentrification? There are themes of the dismissal of Black womxn’s mental health, the importance of community and our elders, and how the history of slavery, colonialism, and government-sanctioned oppression is connected to what’s happening now.

In terms of creep factor, When No One Is Watching is creepy for sure. But what I found scarier was the real life aspects of this. That whole neighborhoods can disappear, communities can disappear, and no one will bat an eye.

I am sad to see so many reviews from not #ownvoices reviewers who call Sydney 'unlikeable,' 'brash,' and 'aggressive' without highlighting the extreme racism, gaslighting, and violence that Sydney experiences throughout the book. This is RACIST. It's REDUCTIVE. It's PROBLEMATIC. By all means, be critical about the pacing, but think carefully about using historically stereotypical and racist terms to explain Black characters." —@literaryintersections

"I just finished When No One Is Watching, and wow I enjoyed it so much. During the beginning I felt frustrated because the book didn’t feel like a thriller, then I realized it’s a little more subtle than most thrillers. The racism and gentrification were overt and definitely added to the mood of the book, but some of the more subtle gaslighting and people disappearing was a huge part of the book as well. I felt so anxious reading because I knew something was going to happen, but I didn’t know what that was going to be." —@lattenightreviews

Missed out on our September book club pick? In October, we're reading Peace Adzo Medie's debut novel, His Only Wife. Read an excerpt from the book here.


the night she disappeared

(Image credit: Design by Morgan McMullen)

alyssa cole when no one is watching

(Image credit: Design By Morgan McMullen)
Rachel Epstein

Rachel Epstein is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in New York City. Most recently, she was the Managing Editor at Coveteur, where she oversaw the site’s day-to-day editorial operations. Previously, she was an editor at Marie Claire, where she wrote and edited culture, politics, and lifestyle stories ranging from op-eds to profiles to ambitious packages. She also launched and managed the site’s virtual book club, #ReadWithMC. Offline, she’s likely watching a Heat game or finding a new coffee shop.