The Maid book cover
Nita Prose
Publisher: Ballantine Books, January 2022
Total Pages: 504 (ebook edition)

Genre: Whydunit & Fool Triumphant

A near perfect blend of Fool Triumphant meets Whydunit, The Maid by Nita Prose features an unreliable narrator who doubles as the headlining heroine of a murder mystery. The result is a tantalizing read, which succeeded in rocketing this recently released novel to the #1 spot on the New York Times Best Seller List.

Here is the book description from Ballantine:

Molly Gray is not like everyone else. She struggles with social skills and misreads the intentions of others. Her gran used to interpret the world for her, codifying it into simple rules that Molly could live by.

Since Gran died a few months ago, twenty-five-year-old Molly has been navigating life’s complexities all by herself. No matter—she throws herself with gusto into her work as a hotel maid. Her unique character, along with her obsessive love of cleaning and proper etiquette, make her an ideal fit for the job. She delights in donning her crisp uniform each morning, stocking her cart with miniature soaps and bottles, and returning guest rooms at the Regency Grand Hotel to a state of perfection.

But Molly’s orderly life is upended the day she enters the suite of the infamous and wealthy Charles Black, only to find it in a state of disarray and Mr. Black himself dead in his bed. Before she knows what’s happening, Molly’s unusual demeanor has the police targeting her as their lead suspect. She quickly finds herself caught in a web of deception, one she has no idea how to untangle. Fortunately for Molly, friends she never knew she had unite with her in a search for clues to what really happened to Mr. Black—but will they be able to find the real killer before it’s too late?

Clue-like, locked-room mystery and a heartwarming journey of the spirit, The Maid explores what it means to be the same as everyone else and yet entirely different—and reveals that all mysteries can be solved through connection to the human heart.

The publisher accurately summarizes the plot. However, trying to explain the tone of The Maid is more complex than merely describing the premise. I found the storytelling style to be charming and slyly humorous—reminding me in parts of certain scenes from Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine—and, yet, entirely its own tale. Chris Whitaker, New York Times bestselling author of We Begin at the End, said the novel was “Fresh, fiendish, and darkly beguiling,” which I thought encapsulated it well.

A key element of the story was also unexpectedly reminiscent of a passage from John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. There’s a point in his travelogue when Steinbeck muses on how some reporters can descend on a place, talk to a handful of people, and come to orderly conclusions based on a small sampling of opinions. He envied this technique but, at the same time, he did “not trust it as a mirror of reality.” He felt there were “too many realities.” I suspect Steinbeck would have appreciated a distinctive protagonist and narrator like Molly Gray.

Molly shares her perceptions with us and clearly sees the behavior of others differently than her fellow characters do. Since the concept of individual interpretation is such an integral element of this novel, let me be the first to admit that my breakdown of beats for this book could potentially be viewed in a wholly different manner by another reader. Molly herself would likely emphasize alternate aspects of the story than the ones I’ve chosen, were she to be given a turn at analyzing it. (And, trust me, I would dearly love to read that version!)

Possible permutations aside, it was great fun getting to play detective myself by matching scenes from The Maid to Blake Snyder’s beats. Here’s my perspective on the structure of this engaging story.

Opening Image (pp. 1 – 8/Front Matter; pp. 9 – 10/Prologue): Molly introduces herself to the reader: “I am your maid.” She informs us that she knows much about all of us and our habits… but, really, what do we know about her?

Set-Up (pp. 9 – 33): Raised by her grandmother after her mother left and eventually died, 25-year-old Molly has never known her father and she most recently lost her beloved Gran to pancreatic cancer. Molly is a woman of strict routine, quirky sayings, and simple pleasures. She loves the “Tour of Italy” entree at the Olive Garden restaurant, not to mention the salad and bread that accompanies it. She’s an avid fan of the TV show Columbo. And she absolutely revels in her job as a maid at the Regency Grand Hotel. She admits she has trouble deciphering facial expressions and interpreting the correct behavior in social situations. She’s aware she makes unintentional errors, but she’s unquestionably a dedicated and diligent worker.

Putting on her maid’s uniform is like an “invisibility cloak,” and she appreciates the relative anonymity it affords her. But there are individuals she pays close attention to during her day, namely, Mr. Snow, her boss; Rodney, the bartender she has a crush on; Cheryl, the head maid with a penchant for thievery; Juan Manuel, the Mexican immigrant who works as a dishwasher in the kitchen; Mr. Preston, the widowed doorman; and Giselle Black, the second wife of the wealthy and powerful Charles Black, both of whom have been staying in the penthouse suite. These characters comprise Molly’s world.

Theme Stated (p. 21): Molly frequently relies on the remembered wisdom of her grandmother. She recalled Gran saying, “Never mind what others think; it’s what you think that matters.” This is important to Molly. She’s determined to follow her own moral code and not to be led blindly by others, no matter what the consequences. This is the traditional “theme stated.”

But there’s an additional and rather cunning theme that arises from Molly’s own thoughts on page 35, and it has resonance throughout the story, right down to the very last scene: “It’s easier than you’d ever think—existing in plain sight while remaining largely invisible. That’s what I’ve learned from being a maid. You can be so important, so crucial to the fabric of things and yet be entirely overlooked. It’s a truth that applied to maids, and to others as well, so it seems. It’s a truth that cuts close to the bone.” A truth indeed, folks. Don’t forget this one.

Catalyst (pp. 34 – 35): Mr. Charles Black is discovered dead in the suite, and Molly is the one to find him. Something very odd and unexplained (until the novel’s end) happens here, but the reader is made aware of these facts: That Molly comes upon the man in his bed, determines he no longer has a pulse and isn’t breathing, calls the hotel’s reception desk for help, sees something in the mirror that unsettles her, and promptly faints.

Debate (pp. 36 – 102): Molly shares her recollections surrounding this unfortunate occurrence with the reader via her mental review, with her boss Mr. Snow, and finally with the lady police detective in charge of the case. Molly painstakingly recounts the events leading up to her discovery of Mr. Black’s body, frequently over-focusing on details that surprise Detective Stark and seem trivial to her. As readers, we’re aware from Molly’s thought process that her personal moral code prevents her from revealing every single thing she knows about the people involved, especially regarding Giselle, Mr. Black’s current wife, who Molly considers one of her few friends.

Also, as a professional maid who “sees dirt where most do not,” Molly is horrified by the lack of hygiene at the police station. One of my favorite lines in this section comes when Molly sees the police detective chewing on the end of her pen and imagines “the universe of bacteria dwelling on the top.” She mentally refers to it as Detective Stark’s plume de peste. Offhanded observations such as these are priceless.

Break into Two (pp. 103 – 116): Molly’s love of the show Columbo comes into play here. There’s a mystery afoot at the Regency Grand, and Molly, as both the real Whydunit detective and the Fool Triumphant protagonist, has her work cut out for her. She’s battling an establishment that doesn’t respect, understand, or fully value her, as well as attempting to juggle relationships with people whose behaviors are frequently mystifying to her. She’d trusted Gran when the older woman was alive, but who can she trust now?

B Story (pp. 116 – 129): This novel has a traditional romantic component. There are financial repercussions as a result of her past relationship with ex-boyfriend Wilbur, legal problems because of her infatuation with Rodney, and future dating opportunities stemming from her interactions with Juan Manuel—a friendship that later catches fire. But it’s also a “love story” in the broader sense of friendship and belonging. Molly needs to find her tribe and distinguish friends from enemies, allies from aggressors.

Fun and Games (pp. 132 – 149): Molly proves herself to be quite capable of compartmentalizing aspects of her world. Her interpretations of the goings-on at the hotel lead to all manner of observations regarding her duties and her interactions with the people there. Molly has conversations with Giselle, who’s still living at the hotel but on another floor. She’s forced to talk to Cheryl, who embodies the role of jealous insider and who is still stealing tips belonging to other maids. She’s been trying to help Juan Manuel, who’s genuinely worried about her and who appreciates her, even though she doesn’t yet realize this. She remains interested in Rodney, who always seems to be scheming about something. And she chats with Mr. Preston, who greets her daily at the door and tries to warn her about people like Rodney, whose intentions may not be honorable.

Molly misinterprets Rodney’s keen interest in talking with her about Mr. Black’s death as a romantic gesture on Rodney’s part. (Readers immediately realize this is not at all the reason for his initiation of this conversation.) Then Giselle surprises Molly by showing up at her apartment unannounced and asking her for a favor. Giselle would like Molly to retrieve the gun she had stashed in the bathroom of the suite. Although risky, Molly agrees. While cleaning the suite where Giselle and her late husband initially stayed, Molly finds his gold wedding band, which he’d thrown across the room in anger the day he died. In a surprise move for someone so proper, Molly pawns the ring so she can make her rent payment.

Midpoint (pp. 249 – 252): Detective Stark is back in search of Molly, and she’s not in a good mood. New evidence in the case has surfaced, and Molly must now return to the police station for additional questioning.

Bad Guys Close In (pp. 253 – 344): Given the many forces working against Molly, much of the novel could fall under the umbrella of bad guys closing in on her. In her very small world, there have been (and still are) a lot of factors working against her. Detective Stark demands “the truth.” Molly assures the reader that she’s been literally honest. However, she privately admits that she’s omitted certain details… not just from the police but, as it turns out, from the reader as well.

Stark considers Molly a person of interest in the case. Adding to Molly’s stress is her landlord, who’s a bully. Worst of all, with problems mounting from every direction, she breaks down and confides her fears to Rodney, believing him to be a friend. He is, of course, a shady character—one who had been deeply involved in a drug trafficking scheme with the late Mr. Black—and he doesn’t have Molly’s best interests at heart. Giselle’s gun is suspiciously discovered in Molly’s vacuum cleaner (where Molly hid it, but no one aside from Rodney knew about that location). And Molly’s decision to pawn Mr. Black’s ring (another secret she’d disclosed only to Rodney) is also revealed to the police, which makes her appear even guiltier. Rodney, Cheryl, and other staff members defame her character to the detective.

All of which leads to the police showing up at Molly’s apartment and arresting her the next morning. Molly faints again, this time waking up in a dirty jail cell. Using her allotted phone call, she contacts  the kind and genuinely supportive Mr. Preston because she needs help. His daughter Charlotte is a hot-shot lawyer who posts Molly’s bail and agrees to represent her, but getting Molly out of police custody is only the beginning.

All Is Lost (p. 345): Molly discovers that Juan Manuel isn’t the only person Rodney has been using in his illicit drug-running activities at the hotel. For the past year, Molly has been an unwitting mule in the nefarious cartel operation.

Dark Night of the Soul (pp. 346 – 364): Pieces of this jigsaw puzzle start coming together. Charlotte quickly comes to understand the real problem. She, along with her father, enlighten Molly about what has been happening behind the scenes at the hotel. They bring Juan Manuel into their confidence, too, since he’s been blackmailed into taking part in the illegal activities. Thus, the four of them—Molly, Mr. Preston, Charlotte, and Juan Manuel—become a team.

Break into Three (pp. 365 – 366): Charlotte spearheads a plan to help both Molly and Juan Manuel, but the young maid doesn’t think she has what it takes to pull off such a clever caper. Still, with encouragement from her friends—and lots of coaching—Molly is prepared to give it her best effort.

Finale (pp. 366 – 491): The road to the novel’s conclusion is a beautiful illustration of the Five-Point Finale:

Gathering the Team: The new group of four, who Molly refers to as her “team of crack investigators,” get together to “devise a trap” to catch Rodney in the act. They solidify their plan and prepare to work as a unit to execute it.

Executing the Plan: The first step in this plan is for Molly to text Rodney, saying they must meet urgently to talk about what she’d disclosed to the police. This sets in motion a setup that will require Rodney to go into the suite where the Blacks were originally staying and “clean it up.” A multi-step sting operation is underway.

The High Tower Surprise: There are two surprises—one for the reader and one for the book characters. The first is that Molly has a side plan she’s been keeping secret even from her teammates. She makes a critical phone call at this point in the story, unsure of what the results will be until later. She never tells Mr. Preston, Charlotte, or Juan Manuel about this, so it’s a surprise revealed just to us. The more traditional surprise comes when Rodney has been arrested and the previous charges against Molly have been dropped. Even so, Detective Stark is still having difficulty getting all the charges leveled at Rodney to stick. She needs Molly’s help.

Dig Deep Down: Mr. Preston makes a revelation to the team regarding his relationship with Molly’s late grandmother. Turns out, he and Gran were engaged at one time and their connection was significantly deeper than anyone in the room had realized. Molly doesn’t seem to grasp the full implications, but Charlotte does (and so does the reader). Molly, however, still has plenty to reflect on, as she remembers the final days with her sick grandmother and, particularly, Gran’s last request. What humans are willing to do for their family, friends, and lovers is underscored here. Molly has learned to judge true friends by their actions and, as such, she knows she’s not invisible to Juan Manuel. By him, she feels seen.

Execution of the New Plan: The team preps for the upcoming trial. Molly’s carefully delivered testimony, where she tells “her truth,” is what clinches the case. Rodney is put behind bars. Mr. Snow promotes Molly to head maid at the hotel and simultaneously demotes Cheryl, the tip thief, making Molly her boss. Juan Manuel, Charlotte, Mr. Preston, and Molly make plans to get together on Sunday nights for regular family-like dinners. Molly and Juan Manuel begin dating. All seems well in the world.

Final Image (pp. 492 – 504/Epilogue): The final twist that illuminates the theme, particularly with regard to how people who exist in plain sight can be “invisible,” is shared with the reader in these last few pages. So many individuals—like maids, doormen, dishwashers, and others—are overlooked by society with alarming frequency. Without spoiling the biggest reveal of all, let’s just say that this message is hammered home at the very end, and that the revelation it brings serves to complete this structurally fascinating and morally ambiguous mystery with yet another reminder from Molly Gray (and the author) that the truth is subjective.