Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Tap On The Window by Linwood Barclay, reviewed by Rita Bailey

A Tap On The Window is Linwood Barclay’s most riveting page-turner to date. Guaranteed to keep you up long past your bedtime, it covers all the familiar Barclay territory--a hapless middle-aged protagonist, a missing-persons case that morphs into something devious, and family relationships that are on the rocky side of normal. But Barclay has a genius for taking the familiar and turning it into a fun-house mirror of surprises, and aspiring suspense writers would do well to take notes.

For starters, we can relate to Barclay’s protagonist. Cal Weaver is an ordinary, middle-aged guy who does something monumentally stupid one night: he picks up a rain-drenched teenage girl hitch-hiking outside a bar. He had a good excuse; at least he thought so at the time. She knew his son, who had died two months earlier in a tragic accident. Like any bereaved parent, he’s grappling with the question Why? and he hopes Claire can provide some answers. From that point on, we’re on his side.

Backstory is dropped in, bit by tantalizing bit, and gradually we discover things are even worse than they seem. This rachets up the suspense and keeps us glued to the page.

But it’s Barclay’s use of dialogue that keeps this thriller moving at a furious pace. For starters, there’s a one-page prologue that is pure dialogue. No tag lines—we don’t even know who’s talking—but it kicks the suspense quotient into gear right from the get-go. Entire chapters are dialogue, interspersed with inner dialogue that is just as good. This keeps the tension at the boiling point.

Barclay has a distinctive voice, expressed through the first-person point of view of Cal Weaver. Most of the story is told from this point of view, but he introduces another voice in Chapter Four. Written in third-person omniscient point of view, it is detached and creepy. He inserts it every so often throughout the novel, whenever the previous chapter ends on a cliff-hanger. It’s all about building suspense.

In addition to cliff-hanging endings, Barclay knows how to open a chapter as well. No boring weather details or reams of description.When he does use description, he makes it do double-duty. For instance, when he is describing Claire, we see her rain-drenched hair bathed in the eerie glow of a neon beer sign outside Patchett’s Bar. We get character, mood and setting all rolled into one. 

I have just one niggling criticism of this novel. It is Barclay’s darkest book yet, full of grief and tragedy. It’s difficult emotional territory, and I think Barclay missed it by a hair. For a guy who’s supposed to be thinking of his dead son all the time, Cal Weaver seems to get sidetracked too easily. In terms of plot and suspense, the ending is pitch perfect, but it didn’t leave me emotionally satisfied. That aside, if you are looking for a roller-coaster of a thriller, take this one for a ride.

Rita reading one of her stories at CJ's Cafe
Rita Bailey is a Hamilton writer currently working on a historical fiction novel, set in Dundas during the Rebellion of 1837. When gardening season arrives, she writes a garden column for the Hamilton Mountain News and tends her heritage tomatoes. A fan of  mystery novels since her Nancy Drew days, she is addicted to reading anything with dead bodies.

See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Barrie, Brampton, Bolton, Burlington, Caledon, Cambridge, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Orillia, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Stouffville, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Algoma, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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