Linwood Barclay writes offbeat, somewhat sardonic thrillers, thrillers with a twist. His novels are awash in evil, but now and then he sends in the clowns. In his new novel, during a family fight in the kitchen, an old man slips on ice cubes and tumbles down the basement stairs, whereupon the narrator comments, “In a Three Stooges episode it might have been comical.” True, but the old man’s fate is no joke. “A Tap on the Window” is all about crime and corruption in a small town, but absurdity happens, too, even as it does amid the confusions of real life.
The novel’s hero, more or less, is a middle-aged ex-cop turned private detective named Cal Weaver, who lives with his wife, Donna, in Upstate New York near Niagara Falls. But beware: In this story Niagara Falls is less a romantic destination for honeymooners than a convenient place for the locals to dump corpses.
Two months before the action begins, the couple’s teenage son, Scott, high on the drug ecstasy, fell off a building to his death — or perhaps jumped, thinking he could fly. The loss of their only child is destroying their marriage. They rarely speak, much less touch. Donna endlessly draws pictures of her lost son. Cal has roughed up several teenage boys he thinks may have given his son “that final, fatal dose” but has yet to secure a confession.
Then one night, quite by accident, Cal encounters Claire, the mayor’s teenage daughter, as she is fleeing town. Her best friend, Hanna, who helped Claire run away, is murdered that same night. Cal, guilt-ridden for not averting the disasters, vows to solve the murder and find Claire.
He doesn’t trust the local police chief, who happens to be his brother-in-law, or most of the town’s cops, who are known for their brutality. He gets little help from Claire’s father, the town’s charismatic mayor, who spends much of his time pursuing women. Indeed, most of the town’s adults are furtively bouncing from bed to bed, and most of its teenagers are following their example. The generations differ mainly in their drugs of choice.
One of the book’s few admirable characters is a young African American with whom Claire had been having her first serious romance until he abruptly left town. His race injects a new element into the mystery: Has racial hostility caused the lovers to run off together — or might they even have been murdered?
Lots of novels portray small-town sex, violence and hypocrisy, but few feature as many strange characters and bizarre events as “A Tap on the Window.” At times, the book reminded me of “Twilight Zone” episodes, Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas novels and Stephen King (who has praised Barclay as “a suspense master”) at his most whimsical.
There’s the young man who uses his supposed combat injuries in Iraq to impress girls but admits to Cal that he was working in a Pizza Hut inside the Green Zone and banged up his knee falling down the stairs. Cal encounters two burly bikers who he suspects may be drug dealers or even contract killers but turn out to be a gay couple who won $6 million in the state lottery and aren’t likely to kill anyone.
There’s a moment of generation-gap humor when Cal is questioning a youth who keeps raving about the film “Shaun of the Dead”: “You’ve seen it, right? It’s only one of the best zombie movies ever made.” When Cal asks about the boy’s cellphone, “You take pictures with this?,” he replies disdainfully: “Every phone takes pictures. How old are you?”
The novel’s plot is intricate, but at the end, Barclay pulls everything together expertly. In the process he kills off two characters we would much have preferred to see survive and writes poignantly about Cal and Donna’s attempts to repair their marriage.
“A Tap on the Window” is a rich stew, sometimes bitter but spiced with laughter. Most thrillers are deadly serious, but tragedy and comedy are hopelessly intermingled, and some writers try to integrate them.
It’s a delicate balance, but “Hamlet” has its laughs — or check out Woody Allen’s new “Blue Jasmine,” in which humor keeps bubbling up even as a woman’s downfall breaks our hearts. Linwood Barclay plays that game, too; he’s a writer worth knowing.
Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers regularly for Book World.
A TAP ON THE WINDOW
By Linwood Barclay
New American Library. 500 pp. $25.95