Photos: NYC skyline (Lisa-Blue/Getty Images); Maid ( Tamagocha/Getty Images)
Toronto author Nita Prose turns a chance encounter in a hotel into a feel-good murder mystery about a neurodivergent chambermaid-turned-sleuth / BY Kim Honey / January 5th, 2022
A luxury hotel can be a pit stop for business travellers, a holiday refuge where tourists unhitch the yoke of work, and even a home for monied residents who hate to cook and clean. What guests do behind the double locks and do-not-disturb signs is personal and private.
Except when it comes to the other person who has a key: The chambermaid.
They can tell how much you had to drink by emptying the trash or restocking the mini-bar; who slept in the bed by the state of the sheets or indentations on the pillows; what size bra you wear or whether you are a boxer or briefs man; and (if you’re indiscreet enough to leave papers strewn across the desk), who you work for, how much money you make and even where you live.
As Molly Gray, the protagonist in The Maid, says in the prologue: “I know so much about you. But when it comes down to it: what is it that you know about me?”
With that fraught question, Toronto author Nita Prose launches her debut novel about a neurodivergent 25-year-old maid at a five-star boutique hotel in Manhattan who finds Charles Black, a real-estate mogul and frequent guest at the Grand Regency Hotel, “dead in his bed.”
Co-workers tease Molly the maid about her name and call her “Roomba Robot” and the “Formality Freak.” When the novel opens, Molly explains she was born to be a maid, and can’t decide whether she loves her cleaning trolley or her uniform more. She almost always understands what to say and do when she is wearing her white shirt and black pants, while “the ultimate invisibility cloak” allows her to blend into the background and avoid attention. Her catchphrase – “I would very much like to return your room to a state of perfection” – is a soothing mantra that underlines the existential anxiety that drives Molly to restore order to an imperfect world.
Molly’s awkward behaviour and odd syntax are central to the plot, given that she cleans the crime scene within an inch of its life, misinterprets clue after clue and implicates herself by what she says as much as what she doesn’t say.
That’s what makes The Maid as fresh as the sheets on the Grand Regency Hotel’s beds, because the reader is not only parsing clues with Molly, but also questioning her take on the situation and trying, just as Molly does, to read between the lines. Very early on, Molly lies to the police, which doesn’t square with her acute sense of justice and black-and-white view of the world. Things are dirty or clean; people are kind or cruel; words are true or false. It’s the first hint that the protagonist’s morality is not what it seems, and plants a seed of doubt that she is an innocent beyond reproach.
The prologue and the main character came to Prose – the pen name for Nita Pronovost, the vice president and editorial director of publisher Simon & Schuster Canada – in November 2019 on the plane home from the London Book Fair, where she was meeting with British authors.
A chance encounter sparked the idea, when Prose came back to her hotel and surprised the maid in mid-clean. “I remember her stepping back into this sort of shadowy corner, and – this is the embarrassing part – she was holding my track pants, which of course I’d left in a big tangled mess on the bed,” Prose, 49, says in a recent interview from her Toronto home. “We didn’t know what to say to each other. And it just struck me then what an invisible and intimate job it is to be a room maid.”
The novel began on that cliché of all creative clichés, the cocktail napkin. “Suddenly I heard the beginnings of Molly’s voice and I took a napkin out from under my drink, because that’s all I had, and I had a pen and I wrote the prologue for the book in a single burst,” the author says. “I really didn’t know it then, but I had just begun my debut novel.”
In book industry parlance, The Maid is a “cozy,” a subgenre of the mystery novel devoid of graphic sex and violence that usually features a reluctant, amateur sleuth. But Prose is a fan of Eleanor Oliphant is Perfectly Fine by Scottish author Gail Honeyman, and the new style of fiction she invented, designed to lift your spirits, not crush your soul.
“I wanted to create a mystery where the mystery could only be solved through a connection of the human heart,” Prose says. “It is a cozy on one hand, but on the other hand, I really borrowed from a genre called ‘up lit’ in the U.K. and feel-good fiction here in North America. I wanted to see if I could meld those elements, with a little bit of the atmosphere of Knives Out and a smattering of the board game Clue.”
Prose started the novel in November 2019, writing it before and after work, and finished the first draft before the March 2020 lockdown. “There was not a lot of Netflix during this period,” she jokes.
The author, who has edited some of the most venerated mystery writers in Canada and the U.K., uses a metaphor to describe the editor-writer relationship, where the writer is on the ground in a labyrinth, trying to find a way to the end of a novel, and the editor is on a ladder, with a bird’s-eye view of all the dead ends. “I knew this paradigm, intimately, as an editor, but I had never experienced that other side of it as a novelist – to have a vision for something and to be completely blind at the same time.”
Although she had an insider’s knowledge of the publishing business, she was still terrified to send out her manuscript. She imagined agents and publishers saying the book was lovely, “and then they’d regrettably decline, while always eye rolling internally.”
Prose was thrilled when Honeyman’s agent, Madeline Milburn, took her on as a client, “because she really understood how hope becomes such a defining factor in up lit, and that can be a very powerful engine for a novel.” The Maid prompted a six-way bidding war – with the movie rights snapped up soon after by Universal Pictures – and Prose is now giving notes to screenwriters about the film, which will star British actress Florence Pugh, who won a 2020 Oscar nomination for her turn as Amy March in Little Women.
A Penny For Your Thoughts
Whether or not Molly is on the autism spectrum is beside the point, according to Prose, who didn’t label the maid because she wanted to show “what it means to be the same as everyone else and yet entirely different.” If she had given her a diagnosis, some readers might focus on Molly’s differences and miss the point. “I want readers to step behind Molly’s eyes. I want them to live inside her skin, to live as her, without any preconceptions. And I hope then, that if we live as her, we learn to love her.”
They sympathize when she reveals that Gran, the woman who raised her and helped her navigate the world, died nine months ago. The author keeps Gran alive as she spritzes her maxims, quoted by Molly, through the book: “the show must go on,” “cleanliness is next to Godliness,” and, my favourite, “a tissue for your issue,” which Molly says when she offers a Kleenex to Mr. Black’s grieving widow.
“I’m pretty sure that I stole a lot from my mother in that way, but she used to always mix up her aphorisms and mish-mash them together, unlike Gran, who actually usually gets them right,” says Prose.
The author also inherited the storytelling gene from her mom, who grew up on a farm in northern Quebec and used to tell improbable tales, including one where she rode a pig called Eugette to school. After Prose’s mother died a few years ago, her Aunt Suzanne confirmed the story. “I can’t always verify whether my mother’s other outrageous stories are true or not so true, but I no longer find the blurred line between fact and fiction all that troubling,” says Prose. “I consider that really one of my mother’s greatest gifts to me.” Aunt Suzanne “likes her clean,” Prose confirms with a laugh. “If you put [her] cleanliness and my mother’s storytelling together, then you have Gran.”
The Next Chapter
In June 2020, Prose told Quill & Quire magazine she was working on her next mystery, titled Mrs. Nobody (there is a clue about this story and its possible protagonist in The Maid), but now she says she is playing with a few ideas.
“It’s just a matter of which character and which voice I feel is going to speak to me the strongest right now.”
Fans may clamour for more about Molly and her unconventional sleuthing skills, but Prose is coy about whether she will write about her lovable, non-conforming maid again. “I want to know if I will see Molly again,” she says cagily. “I’m feeling very hopeful for our chances of seeing Molly in a new way. Hopefully on screen.”