As I gear up for the very long trip across the Atlantic to St. Louis, Missouri, and this week’s Bouchercon, I’m already hoping to buy a beer for another attendee, author Linwood Barclay. That is because his latest thriller, The Accident, was my top summer read while away last month in France. I already saw Barclay once this year, at the Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, England. Shortly after that, his publisher, Orion, kindly sent me a review copy of The Accident, which I saved for my week in France--and what a treat it was!
Canadian author and former Toronto Star columnist Barclay burst into the thriller genre in 2007 with No Time for Goodbye, which plumbed the dark heart of middle-class suburbia. Each subsequent novel--Too Close to Home (2008), Fear the Worst (2009), and Never Look Away (2010)--has helped to cement his reputation for crafting intelligent tales packed with tension and misdirection.
The overriding message in The Accident is that one should never take anything at face value--not the designer-label handbags that lie at this tale’s core, or the friends peppering our lives. Set in the small suburban town of Mitford, Connecticut, Barclay’s novel introduces us to Glen Garber, a local businessman struggling to keep his modest construction company (a legacy from his father) afloat amid the world’s present economic crisis. Anchored in debt, Garber keeps his workforce occupied with minor home extensions and kitchen re-fits. His friends and neighbors are in equally precarious financial situations, and there seems little promise of help on the horizon. On top of it all, Garber continues to be beset by the investigation into a fire that destroyed a property where his men were working, and almost cost Glen his life. Garber’s wife, Sheila, assures him that everything will work out fine--but then she dies in a peculiar head-on car accident. Was it an accident, though? The ensuing probe into Sheila’s demise finds that she was massively intoxicated and asleep at the wheel when she died. Few people who knew her can believe that Sheila should have been so reckless--especially her mother, Fiona, who blames her daughter’s drinking on Glen.
It doesn’t take long for Garber to discover duplicity among the people he calls friends, neighbors, colleagues, and work mates. The folks he thought he knew turn out to be desperate, with hidden agendas that only come into focus as Garber fights to uncover the truth about his wife’s fatal accident. Add to this story a side-plot about counterfeit handbags being traded between members of the middle class--a metaphor for the falseness in some friendships--and you get a yarn that unravels with pathos and empathy, and finishes with twists that make clear how even the darkest motivations beat to the rhythm of a human heart.
I’ve had the chance to interview Linwood Barclay before for The Rap Sheet. But having been so impressed by The Accident, I wanted the opportunity to ask him some more questions. We talked not long ago about his fascination with the ’burbs, the state of Canadian libraries, his debt to detective novelist Ross Macdonald, and much more.
Ali Karim: It’s been a wild ride for you since No Time for Goodbye came out in 2007, with you now carving a niche in the field of suburban thrillers. What is about the middle-class suburbs that so fascinates?
Linwood Barclay: The ’burbs are what I know. I grew up in them until about age 13, when for a few years we lived out in the country. And years later, my wife and I bought our first house in 1981, in the suburbs, although it was a fairly old neighborhood. People living in the suburbs have the same kinds of anguished lives as their friends in the city, but what can make them interesting to write about is it’s generally thought that they don’t.
AK: The Accident, like all of your previous work, starts with a simple idea, but then it becomes a complex layering of characters with hidden motivations. It suggests that you’re an extensive plotter. Is that correct?
LB: I am, but it doesn’t come all that easily. I like to work out major plot points before I begin a book, but once I’m in the thick of it, opportunities to make the plotting more intricate present themselves.
AK: What it is like living with Linwood Barclay when you are in writing mode, and all these characters and plot lines are in your head?
LB: I’m probably just as difficult to be with as at any other time. But when I’m writing a novel, I think I’m often not entirely there when my wife and I are having dinner or going for a walk. I’m thinking about what’s going to happen next.
AK: What inspired this disturbing new thriller, The Accident?
LB: The Accident was inspired by a couple of things. First, my agent, Helen Heller, and I had been talking for some time about knock-off designer handbags as a backdrop for a plot … But I was waiting for something meatier to be the main story. Then I hit on the idea of a guy whose wife dies in a drunk-driving accident--and is blamed for it--and I saw a way to bring the various elements together.
AK: There is a great deal of empathy in your work. That’s especially true of The Accident, in which several disturbing events happen to your characters--most of whom are flawed, just like in real life. Some innocent people get caught up in the crossfire. Did you always know who was truly “good” and who was truly “bad” in this story, or did the characters evolve greatly during the writing?
LB: I knew to some degree who was good and who was had, but as I was writing the book I saw ways to make the characters more nuanced. No one is ever just good, or bad. We’re all pretty complicated. My hope is that, as I work my way through a novel, I can find ways to get that across. For example, my hero, Glen Garber, is far from perfect. He’s a good, decent person, but he’s also judgmental. It’s not an attractive quality.
AK: On the whole, though, Glen Garber is a fine, outstanding man who tries to come to come to terms with the loss of his wife, Sheila, and bring up his daughter while his business is hit by the recent economic crisis. Then he experiences a work-related fire that could ruin his future. He also seems to be a source of confusion for some reviewers. I’ve seen his surname spelled “Barber,” rather than “Garber.” Has the character been re-named in different countries, or did something figure this construction worker just needed a haircut?
LB: I've seen “Carver,” too. He’s supposed to be Garber in all editions, and is, but we had a few glitches when it came to cover copy and reviews. I have to be honest and tell you there are more than a couple of errors in the book, which I take the blame for. The Accident was the most rewritten book I’ve ever done, and I think when you end up doing several versions, there’s a greater chance the odd goof will slip in.
AK: Who is the first reader of a Linwood Barclay novel?
LB: My agent is my first reader. My wife, Neetha, most enjoys reading my novels when they are in book form, generally the advance copy that is sent out for reviews.
AK: Many video trailers for books are amateurish at best, but yours for The Accident is really slick. How was it developed?
LB: I’m delighted to hear you say that. All my book trailers have been made by my son, Spencer, who has a company called Loading Doc Productions. He’s also done trailers for Joy Fielding and promotional material for other authors. We had a great time making the Accident trailer, renting a couple of fake police cars and a fake ambulance from Canadian Picture Cars, in Oakville, Ontario, which rents vehicles for movie shoots. We did the scenes with the vehicles at the back of their lot late one night.
AK: You are now published internationally. Has this demanded more travel from you, and have you any anecdotes about your overseas trips that are worth sharing?
LB: Yeah, we’re getting to see the world. Actually, my wife has the best story. She stayed in London while I went up to Leeds and Harrogate on our last UK trip, and one night sitting alone in the hotel dining room, having dinner and reading a book, Dame Judi Dench came in and sat down next to her. In the last three years we’ve been to England, Italy, Germany, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand. And people have been wonderful everywhere we’ve gone.
AK: I enjoyed watching your interview with Lisa Gardner at Harrogate this summer. But what else did you get up to while in the UK?
LB: It was a busy trip, with plenty of promotional duties. Interviews, videos, etc. On the way to Harrogate I stopped over in Leeds and did an Orion [Publishing] event for booksellers alongside R.J. Ellory, Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, and Michael Marshall. It was great. And while my time in Harrogate was rushed, I got to meet a lot of writer friends, and fans, and Lisa was terrific. We had a lot of fun doing our onstage chat.
AK: Stephen King is now one of your more avid readers. But are you also a King reader? If so, what works in his canon have you most enjoyed?
LB: I've been reading Stephen King since my early 20s. I still think Pet Sematary scared me the most. I’ve recently read two of his short-story collections--Just After Sunset and Full Dark, No Stars. I love to watch how he does what he does. He’s a genius.
AK: Can you tell us if you wrote the novella Clouded Vision specifically for the Quick Reads campaign, or was it something that you already had kicking around in a drawer? And will Clouded Vision ever reach readers outside of the UK?
LB: I wrote that specifically for Quick Reads; it wasn't tucked away anywhere. The book was made available in North America as an e-book, and late next year there will be a longer version of it for my UK readers. It’s already written.
AK: I enjoyed Clouded Vision, in part because it brought back one of your more unusual characters from No Time for Goodbye, the psychic Keisha Ceylon. Was it fun for you to revisit a previous character this way?
LB: It was, and there’s going to be even more fun along that line. I’m pretty sure the next book I write will be a sequel to No Time for Goodbye.
AK: I saw that you were involved with Margaret Atwood’s library campaign. So are Canadian libraries under as much pressure as those in America and the UK? And what are your thoughts about what’s happening to the book world, thanks to the economy and the march of e-books?
LB: Toronto’s new mayor is looking for ways to save money, and as is often the case, politicians turn to culture first when trying to save a dollar. And there’s very much a sense that this particular administration does not put a high value on the services that libraries provide. If you were trying to find the mayor, hanging out in a library would not be the first place you’d look.
Publishing is very much in a state of transition, and I don’t think anyone really knows where we’re going to be in five years. But I don’t think there’s any debate about whether people are reading or not. They are, and that’s good. What’s up for debate is what format they’re going to embrace.
AK: Are you still doing any journalism these days for the Toronto Star?
LB: No. I did do a piece for The Huffington Post last week, but writing and promoting books fills most of my time.
AK: I see that some of your earlier non-fiction work is been released in e-book form. Can you tell us a little about those works?
LB: I wrote a memoir back in 2000 called Last Resort. It’s the story of my coming of age at a resort my parents owned in the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario, Canada. It was a pretty singular kind of experience I had there, especially considering that my father died when I was 16 and I essentially took over running the family business. The book was out of print, but we got the rights back so we could make it available as an e-book.
AK: After the release of Harlan Coben’s Tell Know One, it took a few years before Orion started re-publishing his Myron Bolitar novels. So will we ever see your Zack Walker novels re-issued?
LB: Orion has acquired all four Zack Walker novels and will be bringing them out. Just when, I’m not sure. They’re terrific books, but very different in tone than what I’m currently known for in the UK.
AK: What exciting works have passed over your reading table recently?
LB: I just read The Cut, the new George Pelecanos novel, and loved it. And I had a chance to read an advance copy of Defending Jacob, by William Landay, which will be out in the new year. It’s fantastic.
AK: You credit the Lew Archer novels by Ross Macdonald with having a major influence on the young Linwood Barclay. I know we have discussed his work before, but for younger readers, could you tell us how you finally met your “mentor” and what his work means to the crime-fiction genre?
LB: Macdonald, whose real name was Kenneth Millar, was considered in the 1960s and ’70s the heir to the crime-writing throne, coming along after Hammett and Chandler. I’m not certain people feel that way now, as his novels are not as well remembered as those by Hammett and Chandler. But he was a wonderful writer who expanded the scope of what a crime novel could do.
I became a fan of his work while in high school, and in university I wrote him, care of his publisher, to say I was doing a thesis on the evolution of the iconic private-eye figure in American literature. Macdonald’s creation, Lew Archer, figured largely in the essay. Millar wrote back, suggesting some critical works written about him. And then I did the unforgivable thing of writing back and asking whether I could send him the novel I’d written. (I had written a few by this time.) A generous man, he said sure, read the book, and wrote back with some very kind, and very helpful comments.
That was the beginning of a long correspondence, which culminated in a dinner with Kenneth Millar when he came to Canada, shortly before his final novel, The Blue Hammer, was published [in 1976]. I gave him a tour of Trent University, then dined with him and his wife, Margaret Millar, who was also a mystery novelist of considerable note. I was 21, having dinner with my idol, and to this day I can’t believe it happened. But I have my copy of his novel Sleeping Beauty, in which he wrote: “May 1, 1976. For Linwood, who will, I hope, someday outwrite me. Sincerely, Kenneth Millar (Ross Macdonald).” Millar passed away in 1983. (Tom Nolan has written an excellent, comprehensive biography of Macdonald that I can’t recommend highly enough.)
AK: Finally, tell us a little about 360, your next book.
LB: No. I’m not telling you a thing, except that it will blow your socks off. [Laughing]