West Cork based Alex Barclay is back with a new thriller, says Richard Fitzpatrick
HARM’S REACH, the title of Irish writer Alex Barclay’s latest novel — her fourth in the FBI Special Agent Ren Bryce series — decided what the book would be about. It was a trigger for the action.
“With a lot of my books, the title comes at the end,” she says, “but, strangely, with this one, the notion of harm’s reach — in terms of the reach an event can have, from the past all the way up to the present day — is what captured my attention. What I wanted to do was create a story that had roots in the past. Somebody can commit a violent act and feel that it happens in a tiny capsule, almost with the attacker and the victim, and that is where it ends. Tragically, that isn’t where it ends.”
This is something something the 40-year-old Dubliner has long felt strongly about. “If you carry out a violent, criminal act, it doesn’t end there. The repercussions are endless. The damage echoes; it spreads, not just to the victim, but also to the victim’s family, friends and on through the ages. In Harm’s Reach, what you have is a present-day homicide and the more you explore, the deeper it gets into different family histories and secrets.
“Life is all about secrets. People keep secrets, and that is a great thing, sometimes, and when it’s a poisonous secret it’s going to seep out. Depending on the severity of the secret being kept, it’s not just the person who the secret is being kept from, the person holding the secret is damaged, as well.”
Ren gets a hook on a murder case. Laura Flynn is a 26-year-old, pregnant Irish housekeeper for a rich American couple, the Princes. She’s found dead on the side of the road in rural Colorado, a 14-hour drive from her lodgings. Ren, and Janine Hooks, Ren’s colleague from a cold case unit, start digging and the case leads them to two unusual institutions — Evergreen Abbey, a hippie-like, women’s refuge, and The Darned Heart Ranch.
The ranch is run by a childless, middle-aged couple of do-gooders who reform rich, wayward teenagers; ‘darned’ is a play on ‘damned’ and their folksy idea that you can “knit a problem away”.
Barclay knits the threads of the thriller together deftly, although it’s the troubled, cavernous mind of Ren that captures the imagination. She’s girly giddy at times. Her thoughts jump around, from aching over whether she loves her laid-back, out-of-town boyfriend to fantasising about jumping her boss’s bones: “Ren sometimes forgot how Gary fit so well with how women imagined an FBI agent to be: tall, fit, serious, in control. He was the handsome hero who made them feel safe. And made them want to sleep with him. He had never made Ren feel she wanted to sleep with him.”
Ren was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 26 years of age. When she’s high, it gives her an uncanny ability to make connections in cases that her colleagues can’t. When, for example, Ren examines the crime scene, she notices a pair of women’s shoes behind the passenger seat. The victim either had a passenger or was about to greet one, Ren concludes, because a lady driver would keep her change of shoes in the passenger well, unless she didn’t want them to bother the passenger. But when Ren’s low, she makes god-awful mistakes.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Barclay. “For a period of time, an incredible clarity can come to her. How she sees things can be different to everybody around her. She has the ability to make links, but I’m always very conscious of the fact that it is unsustainable — a manic phase.
“Other features will arise. For Ren, that could be a series of wild nights out, and, obviously, they’re going to take her toll on her. If she’s out partying all night, and that continues, and she’s drinking, by the end of that, of course, she’s not going to have clarity. Everything is going to be jumbled and the wheels will fall off.”
Barclay, whom a book reviewer once said had the good looks “to star in her own movies”, was born in 1974. She grew up in Bayside, Co Dublin. She jacked in her job as a fashion editor with the RTÉ Guide — and adopted the pen name Alex Barclay — a decade ago to pursue a career as a crime fiction writer, having gorged on noir thrillers from the age of 14.
“To me, that seemed perfectly normal,” she says, “but when I think of 14-year-olds that I know, I can’t imagine them reading the gory stuff that I read, and the darkness and the violence. There was always a crime novel in my bag. It baffles me that I was like that at that age, but seemingly normal at the end of it all. My interest in the psychology of evil hasn’t waned, no matter how much I read or write or watch documentaries about it. It is of endless fascination.”
She moved to Castletownbere, Co Cork, seven years ago, after stints boarding at Anam Cara’s writers’ retreat. For research, she travels to the United States. Her earlier novels were set in the mean streets of New York, where an NYPD cop took her under her wing, but for the Ren Bryce series the FBI opened the doors of its Denver office, which was a coup, as most of her peers ‘pick the brains’ of retired detectives.
“When I first met everybody, it was at lunch, so they were all sitting there at a big table. Up until that point, my experience was the same as anybody’s — from watching them on TV. FBI agents are what you imagine them to look like — fit, smart, in control. They couldn’t have been nicer.
“The agent who helps me with my research is very generous with his time. He’s the equivalent of Ren’s boss; that’s the position he has. He thinks she’s a train wreck. It’s undeniable.
“I write a heroine who’s excellent at solving crimes, but she spends part of her time off the rails.
“Or, as the agent who helps me says, ‘You do know, Alex, she’s always off the rails, in my opinion’.”
Alex Barclay will be in conversation with Seán Rocks as part of the Dublin Book Festival on Thursday at 6.30pm at The National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. www.dublinbookfestival.com
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