Toronto-based thriller writer Linwood Barclay has many admirers, including such superstars as Michael Connelly, Peter Robinson, Robert Crais and Stephen King, who provided a fulsome blurb for Trust Your Eyes, Barclay’s previous novel, in which he says, among other complimentary things, “My idea of a sweet ride is three days of rain, a fridge full of snacks, and a new Linwood Barclay.”
I’ll bet Mr. King likes A Tap on the Window, Barclay’s 12th and most recent work, as well. Why not? Tap has the same sort of characters – fairly ordinary, small-town, middle-class folks, with families and homes and money woes, and the same sort of minor flaws serving to make them even more sympathetic and credible. It also displays the same sort of fast-rising, extraordinary, desperate situation, the same pulse-quickening pace and ratcheting tension, the same sharp turns and unexpected reversals.
In fact, the quibble most often heard about Barclay’s work is that his novels are all written to the same formula, which is true, but only to a point. Within the ordinary-guy, extraordinary-situation trope, there’s plenty of room for variation. Barclay has given us a teenager who wakes one morning to discover that her entire family has vanished (No Time for Goodbye); an autistic savant who sees a murder committed on a Google Earth-type street scene in another city (Trust Your Eyes); a man whose wife is deemed responsible for an auto accident that killed her and two of her friends (The Accident); and a fake psychic whose scam goes badly awry when her “visions” of a missing woman turn out to be disturbingly, dangerously close to reality (Never Saw It Coming).
In A Tap on the Window, Barclay takes us through low-level drug-dealing, young love, teenage disaffection, corrupt cops, petty thievery, family dysfunction and deeply buried secrets. And, incredibly, to a dark conclusion that ties it all together into a tidy, believable package without even a hint of sentiment.
We start with small-town private detective Cal Weaver, who left his job on the police force in Promise Falls, N.Y. – scene of a couple of earlier Barclay novels – to move with his family to another upstate New York town, Griffon, near Buffalo. On a dark and stormy night, against his better judgment, Cal picks up a soaking-wet teenaged girl who is hitchhiking. He knows it’s stupid – a fortysomething man picking up a girl less than half his age? – but he is distracted by the recent death of his son, Scott, who leaped or fell from a downtown rooftop two months before.
The girl, Claire, recognizes him as Scott’s father, and Cal can’t resist the chance to learn more about his son – and, hopefully, more about the person who sold Scott the drugs that led to his death. It isn’t long before Cal realizes there is more to Claire’s story than she’s saying, that there is something not right about the girl and her situation. But then she gets out of the car and walks off, and Cal, having done what he could to help her, heads for home. His wife, Donna, is still reeling from Scott’s death, obsessively drawing his face, over and over, trying to get it just right. Their marriage is in trouble: They’re not talking to each other. Cal sneaks into bed. Donna pretends to be asleep.
The next day, Cal is off to Tonawanda, the next town over, where a butcher-shop owner thinks one of his employees is stealing from him. (He’s right.) When Cal returns home, he is grilled by two Griffon policemen about the previous night’s encounter with Claire – who, it turns out, is the mayor’s daughter, and who has vanished. The cops are clearly skeptical about his story – who wouldn’t be? – but since Donna is an administrator in the police department, and since her brother, Augie, is the chief, they treat Cal with relative courtesy. But the situation is ominous, and Cal decides that, to clear himself of suspicion, he must begin his own investigation into Claire’s whereabouts, and her mysterious behaviour. The girl’s disappearance is obviously the central event of the novel, though Scott’s death looms large; Cal’s search for answers to the questions that arise from the two events takes him into several unexpected areas.
Meanwhile, Barclay’s portrayal of the devastating effect of a son’s death on his loving family is note-perfect. The novel’s minor characters are well developed and deliciously detailed (though the teenagers are perhaps cruder and sloppier than absolutely necessary). Even the thieving employee proves to have a vital role to play.
Linwood Barclay’s many fans will need no encouragement to seek this book out. But if you haven’t discovered him yet, it’s time you did.
Jack Kirchhoff is a freelance arts writer and editor in Toronto.