We gave it a B
Let me say, right up front, that kiddie kidnapping is just about my least favorite premise for a thriller. Sadistic creeps grab the kid, then make vicious threats and impossible demands. The hysterical parents, unable to call in the cops, go wild with frustration. The terrified child screams for mommy. All in all, it’s the cheapest shortcut to unearned emotional impact. And though a gifted storyteller like Alfred Hitchcock (The Man Who Knew Too Much) or Ruth Rendell (The Tree of Hands) occasionally can bring originality or depth to the formula, most of the time the name of the game is manipulation.
So Don’t Say a Word didn’t exactly win me over with its first half — which follows a duo of thugs as they abduct the 5-year-old daughter of decent Dr. Nathan Conrad, a Manhattan psychiatrist, and his nice wife, Aggie. The kidnappers are psychos from central casting: Smooth, handsome ”Sport,” a woman-hater with a filthy mouth, is the mastermind; huge, retarded Maxwell, who gets sexually aroused from the physical pain of kittens, old ladies, and little girls, does the dirty work. The Conrads suffer the usual parental torments, especially since Sport taunts them by tapping their phone and secretly watching their every move from an apartment across the way. Andrew Klavan — author of such books as The Scarred Man under his Keith Peterson pseudonym — revels in the clichés instead of rising above them.
But one element kept me reading anyway: the motive. Dr. Conrad, who does lots of charity work, is far from rich. So why kidnap his child? Could there be a connection to the doctor’s latest case? He has been brought in by the city to evaluate 18-year-old Elizabeth Burrows, a paranoid schizophrenic accused of murder. Only the gentle Dr. Conrad seems able to coax Elizabeth out of her catatonia, to win her trust. And, as soon becomes clear, that’s why Dr. C.’s daughter has been kidnapped: because Sport needs some information (worth a fortune) that only Dr. Conrad can extract from Elizabeth.
Eventually, then, Don’t Say a Word begins to click into gear as a multilayered thriller. Klavan never lets up on the child-in-peril pressure. But at the same time he expertly unravels the coil of secrets inside Elizabeth Burrows’ damaged psyche, generating a far classier sort of chiller, with echoes of Marnie and Marathon Man. In sum: a slick mixture of the crass and the savvy, with something for — if not everyone — all kinds of psycho-suspense fans. B