Four Wall Street Bankers Are Stuck in an Elevator — and It’s No Joke

By Megan Goldin

The idea seems irresistible: What if the popular party game of people stuck together in a room — trying to escape only with vague clues provided by their captor — turned lethal? What if the stakes were life or death?

Perhaps it is a parable for our times.

“The Escape Room,” by Megan Goldin, follows this lure. In her debut thriller, a team of four hotshot Wall Street investment bankers are drawn into an elevator in a remote building, where no one will hear their cries for help. The doors close behind them.

And the game — if that’s what it is — begins.

“Welcome to the escape room,” the television monitor above them reads. “Your goal is simple. Get out alive.”

Within hours they are a sweating, disheveled, terrified mess. (Those of us with claustrophobia will relate.) Of course matters grow quickly worse. Clues become visible on the metal walls. Secrets are revealed. Resentments boil to the surface. A weapon appears.

Bloodshed seems inevitable.

This all might feel predictable if not for Goldin’s talent. She brings a lovely complexity to what could be trite characters, and a sure hand at ratcheting up the tension. The pages turn themselves.

The story switches back and forth between the entombed Wall Street bankers, sweating out their seemingly imminent demise, and a young woman who worked on their team — Sara Hall, who is “dead but not forgotten.” Sara, we learn, disappeared some years before under less than auspicious circumstances.

The surprise of this fast-paced novel is the bankers themselves, who are depicted as humans with desires and — sometimes — sweet vulnerability. Goldin knows readers will want to push the red button on such a crew, and so she enlists our compassion to keep us in the game. The women are especially relatable, trying to advance in a world where pregnancy is a career-ending move and men go to strip bars to conclude deals, cutting women out of both promotion and profits.

The relentless hours, the worshiping at the altar of money and the rank chauvinism of Wall Street feel all too real. One starts wanting to rescue these hapless capitalists, and perhaps take them home for some humble soup.

The missing Sara Hall, who helps narrate, is especially sympathetic. Initially drawn to medicine, she chooses business school instead because she needs to take care of her aging parents. Goldin captures the tremulousness of a young woman from a working-class background trying to fit into a world of Gucci ties and goatish laughter. The scenes of Sara navigating a dissociative life while pretending she is fully in it add credence to a story that otherwise can delve into the implausible.

The writing is no frills. One can see Goldin’s background as a reporter in the eyes-to-the-road prose.

As a debut novelist Goldin has room to grow — it would be nice to see her connect more with the joy of language, and take more care with her descriptions, which can veer into cliché (eyes here are like “a blue ocean on a sunny day”). Parts of the novel could have used more research, as credibility stretches to incredulity.

But as a light thriller, “The Escape Room” delivers all that it promises. It is a sleek, well-crafted ride to a surprisingly twisty conclusion, posing a satisfying and unexpected question at the end: What if escaping the escape room means changing who we are?

Rene Denfeld is the author of “The Child Finder.”

By Megan Goldin
356 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $26.99.

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