Cal Weaver and the hitchhiker from hell

A Tap on the Window
Linwood BarclayOrion, €20.50

Canadian author Linwood Barclay says of when he first set out to write: “I said my goal was to be able to use the words ‘Canada’ and ‘thriller’ in the same sentence.”

The best-selling author of No Time for Goodbye (2007), Never Look Away (2010) and Trust Your Eyes (2011) is entitled to do so now. Born in the US, but raised in Canada after his parents moved when he was four years old, Barclay holds dual citizenship. Despite being steeped in Canadian culture all his life, however, Barclay — like his hero before him, the American-born but Canadian-raised author Ross Macdonald — sets his novels in the US.

As we relocate from our seats in front of the blazing fire in the Merrion Hotel’s drawing room, Barclay jokingly notes that his decision to set his books in the US means that he ‘takes a little heat’ from some of his Canadian peers.

“Canada has a very strong literary tradition,” he says, “and of course it has to sit next to the States, which dominates it. So if you’re a Canadian writer you can set your book anywhere in the world and they’ll be okay with it — as long,” he laughs, “as it’s not set in the US.”

A Tap On The Window is Barclay’s 13th novel. Set in the small US town of Griffon, it opens with private eye Cal Weaver offering a lift to a hitchhiking teenage girl late one evening. As with most of Barclay’s novels, it’s an apparently mundane scenario that very quickly spirals out of control.

“I’d been thinking for a while about what I could do with the idea of the hitchhiker,” he says. “It’s a familiar trope, and it’s been used many times, especially in horror novels. So I wanted to do something different, just put a little twist on it. And that’s when I started thinking, ‘What if there’s a switch?’ You’re giving someone a ride, and they ask to stop off, and when they come back they’re not the same person — except you don’t realise that right away.

“It’s kind of like what I did in Never Look Away, which starts in an amusement park, with this couple whose kid disappears. Someone’s grabbed the kid. So you’re thinking, ‘Okay, I know what this book is about.’ But by page six, they find the kid. Only, when the parents come back to reunite with the kid, the mother never shows up. So really, you’re trying to do work with something that’s familiar, but give it a little bit of a twist.”

There’s rather more than ‘a little bit of a twist’ to A Tap On The Window, a novel that packs a hefty emotional wallop. Cal Weaver is a man in mourning for his teenage son, Scott, who committed suicide some months before the story opens. The fraught nature of Cal’s relationship with his wife, Donna, adds a new dimension to Barclay’s writing.

“I can imagine that particular tension between a couple. It’s like, the only thing anybody’s thinking about is their dead son, so you don’t want to say anything, because that means you’re going to have to talk about it. That whole issue of grief, and how people deal with it, is not a topic I’ve really touched on before. I’ve dealt with loss in the past, but I think here the issue is much more immediate, and it has much more of an impact.”

Did he consciously set out to write a more emotionally driven thriller? “I didn’t necessarily think of it that way when I was writing it, but I guess that no matter what you’re writing about, it has to matter.

“I think a lot of times you can write a very clever thriller, one full of twists and surprises, but it doesn’t really resonate. A story has to have some kind of emotional impact. It needs to be more than just, ‘Oh, it was the butler who did it.’ I mean, I have no illusions, I’m not a literary writer by any means — I’m not Philip Roth or anyone like that. But I did want to bring an emotional resonance to this story, sure.”

Ultimately, Barclay’s instinct as a storyteller means that he will use every narrative tool in his box to bring his story to the widest audience possible. He hugely enjoyed writing his first four novels, a humorous mystery series centring on Zack Walker, ‘a kind of hapless, anal-retentive, anxiety-ridden individual’ who is ‘in no way equipped to deal with bad guys’. When the series failed to find a wide enough audience, however, he left Zack Walker behind and began writing standalone thrillers.

“I really don’t label the books,” he says. “I just want to write as good a book as I can. When it comes to thrillers, it’s all subtle shadings of difference. They’re all crime novels, but thrillers differ a little from mysteries in that thrillers have more of a momentum to them, they have more of a narrative drive.”

It may have been a subtle change, but it was enough to see his first standalone, No Time for Goodbye, land on Richard and Judy’s summer reading list in 2007. Barclay hasn’t looked back since, although he is currently headed for familiar territory. His next book, No Safe House, will be a sequel to No Time for Goodbye. The book after that will see Cal Weaver return to his hometown of Promise Falls, where Barclay has set previous novels.

“This is the first book I’ve done where I’ve had a private eye. All the others have been car salesmen, teachers or a porter. So Cal Weaver is a character I can bring back.”

In a way, it’s surprising that Weaver is Linwood Barclay’s first private detective character. At the age of 18, whilst running his family’s caravan park, Barclay began corresponding with Ross Macdonald, who is regarded — alongside Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler — as one of the greatest writers of private eye fiction in the crime genre.

“In Canada,” says Barclay, “every boy’s hero is a hockey player — Bobby Orr, say. Well, I had no greater hero at that age than Ross Macdonald. He was the pinnacle. And the fact that I not only got a response from him, but then got a call from him to come and have dinner with him and his wife [Margaret Millar, a wonderful author in her own right] — I couldn’t actually believe it was happening, the whole time I was with him. I mean, I appreciate now what a huge imposition it was for me to ask him to read my book, but he just said yes. Like, what was he thinking? But then he read it, and commented on it, and critiqued it. He even wrote a letter on its behalf to his publishers, Knopf — although the book simply wasn’t good enough to be published.”

On the night in question, Macdonald signed one of his books for Barclay, writing, ‘For Linwood, who will, I hope, some day outwrite me.’

While the inscription wasn’t intended as prophecy, it has provided a life-long inspiration. For a moment the persona of the avuncular, pragmatic professional writer falls away, and Linwood Barclay is an endearingly naïve 21-year-old aspiring author again.

“What a generous, kind, giving individual,” he says, shaking his head, “that he would take a young man so seriously.”

And three decades later, Linwood Barclay is using ‘Canada’ and ‘thriller’ in the same sentence.

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