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We've Got to Get Out of Here

Megan Goldin
Megan Goldin
St. Martin's Press
 368 Pages
The Escape Room
“Greed is good.” Gordon Gekko, the financial wheeler-dealer portrayed by Michael Douglas, spoke these words in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street in 1987. That line came to epitomize the unscrupulous but lucrative type of high finance machinations portrayed in that movie and in real life since then. And those words might also be the mantra for the four greedy, backstabbing investment bankers in Megan Goldin’s highly entertaining financial thriller, The Escape Room. These characters make Gordon Gekko look like a piker, and readers have the distinct pleasure of seeing them literally sweat. 
These greedy bankers are part of a formerly high-flying team that works for the Wall Street firm of Stanhope and Sons. Their job is putting together mergers and takeovers that make small fortunes for them and larger ones for the company. But things haven’t gone all that well for the team lately, and they receive a mysterious summons one Friday night to attend a team-building exercise at an unoccupied high-rise building. What they don’t know, but those who read the very first chapter of The Escape Room do is that the exercise is going to end very badly and very bloodily. Just how badly it ends and whose blood is on display, however, are juicy details that the author doesn’t reveal until the end of the book.
This particular team-building exercise is an escape room, a popular live-action game where a group of people in an enclosed location like, say, an elevator must solve a series of puzzles to get out. As played in the real world, it’s a harmless couple of hours entertainment that can be fun for those who enjoy answering riddles, deciphering codes, finding hidden compartments, and the like. But the escape room in which these four bankers find themselves soon leaves the riddles and codes far behind. Instead, things really heat up for them as the elevator’s heating system goes into overdrive. At the same time, the clues that they discover don’t seem to show the way out but, instead, reveal unsavory bits of information from their past.
 For the most part, author Goldin tells her story in alternating chapters told from different points of view. Half of these chapters describe the plight of the group trapped in the elevator. Meanwhile, the other half of the book is narrated by a young Stanhope analyst named Sara Hall, who joined the team shortly after being hired by the firm. Sare is conspicuously missing from the escape room invitation list. However, the other characters soon reveal why Sara isn’t along for the ride.
The Escape Room is, in part, a mystery thriller in which readers try to figure out just what occurred in the past that led to the characters’ eventual fates. Frankly, the mystery elements don’t require a Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe to figure out (although the author does throw in a couple of rather interesting developments along the way). In larger part, however, the novel is a character study that contrasts the extent to which the various characters are driven by greed. On the one hand are the four veteran investment bankers. In a clever authorial touch, they don’t appear at first to be complete monsters. Instead, they seem to be relatively normal corporate types, a bit self-centered and snobbish, but not that all different from what you’d find in most businesses. To reinforce this take, the author has Sara recount her initial encounters with the various team members and how, at certain times, she liked or respected them for their positive qualities. But as the book goes on, the author peels away this veneer of respectability surrounding the bankers like layers of an onion. Goldin does this simultaneously in the elevator chapters and in Sara’s narrative, as the young analyst learns more about her colleagues and the extent to which they will go to protect themselves. Further, the misdeeds at Stanhope aren’t limited to those particular bankers chasing after the almighty dollar. Apparently, management there is utterly unaware of the #MeToo movement, as sexual harassment, blatant sexism, and even outright assault are commonplace.
The Escape Room is considerably more than the story of four Gordon Gekkos trapped in an elevator, however. Much as the movie Wall Street focused on a novice stockbroker (played by Charlie Sheen) that Gekko took under his wing, The Escape Room is largely Sara’s story. And it’s a story of a young woman trying to overcome a lot of bad breaks in her life who seemingly finds Cinderella’s glass slipper when she gets a dream job at Stanhope. But her dream gradually becomes a nightmare. The author takes great care not to make Sara a saintly figure. Instead, Sara at first falls quickly under the spell of the handsome salary, bonuses, and fringe benefits she receives. (She repeatedly mentions how much the items of her new wardrobe cost.) But as the novel progresses, Sara becomes increasingly desperate as she tries to figure out just how twisted her co-workers are. Again, Goldin cleverly juxtaposes descriptions of the worsening conditions in the elevator and Sara increasing plight.
Eventually, The Escape Room becomes a morality tale of bad things happening to bad people (as the author foretold in the first chapter). This type of epic downfall can be enormously satisfying when done right. Unfortunately, the author misses the mark a bit here. Plotwise, a lot more happens in the last 50 pages of The Escape Room than in the first 300, and readers’ feelings are not unlike what patrons of a bar experience when forced to gulp down their drinks at closing time. Although the ending is somewhat rushed, it’s still quite easy for readers to follow. However, I do wish the author had expanded on her description of these events, which would have led to a more satisfying conclusion.
Still, The Escape Room is quite an accomplished work for a relatively inexperienced writer. I was especially impressed with the way the two strands of Goldin’s narrative complemented each other on multiple occasions. The result is a book that draws readers in on both levels and where plot revelations in one thread have an immediate impact on the other. The Escape Room is the type of book that movies often get right where authors stumble. However, Megan Goldin keeps readers enthralled the entire way, and the book becomes a classic summer page-turner. (Needless to say, this book could make a great movie.) The Escape Room is one book from which readers will not want to escape.
Many thanks to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers who asked me to take part in this blog tour, and to St. Martin’s Press, which graciously provided me with a copy of the book.

Megan Goldin is a best-selling Australian author who was a journalist before becoming a writer. She reported from the Middle East for the Associated Press, Reuters, the (Australian) ABC and other news outlets, frequently covering war zones and reporting on international terrorism. She also worked in Asia as a reporter and editor for Reuters and Yahoo!. More recently, she returned to her native Melbourne to work on writing fiction. Her first novel, The Girl In Kellers Way, was published in Australia in 2017 and was nominated for Australia’s leading crime fiction awardsThe Escape Room is her second novel and marks her debut in the United States and United Kingdom.


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