Thursday, September 27, 2012

Won’t Get Fooled Again

(Editor’s note: This is Part I of a feature by British correspondent Ali Karim. Part II should appear in The Rap Sheet tomorrow.)

I have followed Linwood Barclay’s work ever since the 2007 publication of his breakout novel, No Time for Goodbye, and as much as I was captivated by last year’s The Accident, I still found myself unprepared for the intensity and elegance of Trust Your Eyes (NAL).

During the experience of reading this new novel, I found myself laughing, touched, puzzled, and horrified. Even as someone who can usually see well beyond technical misdirection in narratives, this book’s twists got me every time. There’s no deus ex machina deployed by Barclay. The clues are clearly visible and in plain sight; but as the book’s title suggests, you have to trust your eyes. That’s something I failed to do. Although this is not a puzzle book, per se--because its characters are fully realized, breathing a compassionate dimension to every chapter--it is still a work of labyrinthine plotting, containing all the defects and nuances of human nature.

Frankly, I am amazed that Linwood Barclay was not forcibly committed to an insane asylum, injected with Thorazine and strapped to a gurney in a straitjacket after completing this manuscript. Because I’ll tell you, every little detail, every location, every character’s nuances and back-story added to the narrative, propelling it slowly, gently, inch by inch to a final, shocking dénouement. To have worked on this book must have required the mental fortitude of Zeus. Trust Your Eyes is a remarkable book, a Zeitgeist-affecting work that you won’t walk away from without your worldview having been nudged, or maybe wounded.

What makes Trust Your Eyes so special is the author’s voice, empathetic and nonjudgmental. It leads you into places you would probably rather avoid. The easygoing manner in which you are thus directed will result in many shocks--chilling and troubling--along the dark length of narrative that Barclay has laid.

Barclay writes in what some observers would term the “cheating first-person.” His main story is relayed from the perspective of Ray Kilbride, a freelance cartoonist in a fast-changing media market. His younger brother, Thomas--who suffers from a form of schizophrenia--sees changes in modern life too, but from the point of view of cartography. The world of maps and mapping is shedding paper presentation and moving into the digital realm, thanks to advances in satellite navigation and the Internet’s “Whirl360,” a fictionalized version of Google Street View. Ray’s journey between the rigid covers of this book is interspersed with third-person prose, highlighting a cast of complex characters--some real, some hidden, and some very bad, all converging in the story like passengers in a slow-motion car crash, destined to result in multiple fatalities.

Among the attractions of Trust Your Eyes is that no one here is totally bad, just as nobody is wholly good (or completely innocent); even the really bad guys claim flaws and redeeming aspects. Barclay shows a deep understanding of human facets and flaws. The inner psyches and motivations of both the protagonists and antagonists in this book can be directly related to the decisions they’ve made in their lives. There is morality suffused through this narrative, though at times it’s so murky, you may need to bring a torch.

This is a troublesome book to review, as spoiling its complex, sometimes dizzying plot would be a sin. The simplest description of Trust Your Eyes is to say that it’s a rebooting for our digital age of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window (which was based on Cornell Woolrich’s short story, “It Had to Be Murder”).

After 62-year-old widower Adam Kilbride dies in a sudden, tragic accident while operating a lawn-mowing tractor, family lawyer Harry Peyton contacts Kilbride’s elder son, Ray, the graphic artist who lives in Burlington, Vermont, urgently calling him back to the family home in Promise Falls. Ray comes as soon as he can, because Adam Kilbride had been living in the family home and looking after his younger, paranoid son, Thomas, who cannot be left on his own. Ray is not surprised, but is certainly irritated with his brother when Thomas refuses to attend their father’s funeral. However, he chalks that up to Thomas’ mental instability.

Ray’s return to his father’s house is troubling, as Thomas’ mania about mapping the world from the safety of his bedroom has taken over his life. It seems that Thomas hears voices. He says that he receives calls from former U.S. President Bill Clinton and is working on a clandestine mission for the CIA. That mission demands that Thomas memorize all of the world’s maps, using the online computer program Whirl360. Thomas believes--via the CIA--that an immanent threat has been identified, one that will wipe out all of Earth’s digital maps. Because of Thomas Kilbride’s astounding memory and mental abilities (not unlike those of Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man), the Agency--apparently under Clinton’s direction--has supposedly recruited Thomas Kilbride to memorize and map all of the world’s cities, so when the anticipated “incident” occurs, Thomas can guide the Agency’s various assets around the globe to safety. Thomas is convinced that as world maps are being digitized, the paper versions are being discarded--so after the “incident,” the world will be thrown into chaos.

Ray learns from Thomas’ psychiatrist, Dr. Laura Grigorin, that his sibling’s delusion regarding President Clinton’s voice and the CIA assignment is all-encompassing. Furthermore, Grigorin suggests that the voices inside Thomas’ head are associated with a childhood trauma that her patient refuses to talk about, or even acknowledge. Instead, Thomas spends all of his free time between meals and sleep working through Whirl360, trying to commit to memory every alleyway from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Osaka, Japan, and e-mailing progress reports to the CIA in Langley, Virginia.

This all seems like reasonably innocent behavior from a troubled and deluded mind--until the day that Thomas sees in the window of a New York City apartment what he believes is the face of a woman being murdered by suffocation!

Ray is understandably skeptical of his brother’s interpretation. After all, what he saw might actually have been a storefront mannequin with a plastic bag over its head; or he might have witnessed some sort of sick prank, rather than a homicide in progress. However, Thomas’ obsessive nature will not let that image of the woman go, and he prints it out and hands it to Ray in hopes that the latter will investigate.

Ray’s attempts to make sense of what Thomas witnessed--as halfhearted as they are initially--introduce into Barclay’s yarn an assorted cast of flawed and driven individuals, all harboring their own agendas. Among them: waitress Allison Fitch, who is behind on the rent she must pay for an apartment on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan that she shares with one Courtney Walmers--the very same apartment in which the troubled Thomas Kilbride says he saw (thanks to the World Wide Web) a woman with a plastic bag knotted over her noggin.

Also looped into this mystery is New York Attorney General Morris Sawchuck. A politician with ambitions toward higher office, Sawchuck’s future has been threatened by his wandering eye for women as well as by a deal he struck with CIA Director Barton Goldsmith--now dead from suicide--to protect possible Al-Qaeda terrorists. But Sawchuck has been saved from his own errors more than once by Howard “The Taliban” Talliman, his longtime friend and Machiavellian adviser. It was Talliman, too, who arranged for Sawchuck to marry his third wife, the beautiful young Bridget. Now, though, another dangerous difficulty has arisen: It seems Bridget Sawchuck and the financially troubled Allison Fitch have an unexpected linkage, one that could destroy AG Sawchuck’s political career once and for all. The desperate Talliman will have to depend on all of his connections--especially those with ex-NYPD tough guy Lewis Blocker and an assassin named Nicole--if he’s to keep Sawchuck’s reputation at all clean.

As Barclay’s story develops further, we learn not only how Nicole became a ruthless killer, but also how Allison Fitch discovered that her true inner purpose is to be ruthlessly selfish. This aspect of Allison’s character will lead her down a path that collides with Nicole’s own past. Those two women, and the other characters in these pages, are shown to be largely the creations and victims of choices they’ve made.

Linwood Barclay and Ali Karim at Bouchercon 2008 in Baltimore, Maryland (© 2008 Ali Karim).

With encouragement from his love interest, journalist and former high school acquaintance Julie McGill, Ray Kilbride eventually goes to Manhattan hoping to take a look-see at the apartment where Thomas alleges a murder was committed. Ray is hoping to put an end to speculations about what his brother really saw; instead, he helps spark a sequence of events that will lead to death, tragedy, and the realization that even simple liaisons can trigger the worst aspects of human nature. As events tumble over one another, and killings escalate in number to protect a political machine, readers are offered some of the most emotionally wrenching scenes I’ve ever found in thriller fiction. Thankfully, Barclay leavens his plot occasionally with lighthearted moments (most of which play on the madness of Thomas Kilbride) that help a bit to balance the shocking developments with humanity and compassion.

The Kilbride brothers soon realize that the voice of Bill Clinton may be on to something more important than either of them realized.

Despite being well read in the thriller genre, I found myself caught out on occasion, because Barclay’s ability to misdirect is quite phenomenal. In the center of this book, for example, there is a pivotal scene that reminds me of the closing section of Thomas HarrisThe Silence of the Lambs, in which FBI agent Clarice Starling knocks at serial killer Buffalo Bill’s house ... while members of a well-armored SWAT team also knock on what they’re convinced is Buffalo Bill’s house. To misdirect readers this successfully in a novel is a tall order, and as in Harris’ book, I was totally fooled by Barclay--so much so that I had to go back and re-read the chapter, and was then compelled to cry out into the silence of my house, “Barclay, you had me!”

The closing sections of Trust Your Eyes are like Russian nesting dolls: every time you open one up, you find another complication inside. Once the political dirty games are revealed, the plot shifts back to Adam Kilbride’s tragic accident, and then Barclay delivers a shock with his very last line. After digesting that ending, I went back to re-read the Prologue, only to understand the significance of what I’d considered Barclay’s theme here: The windows we open in our lives to show people who we are may be less significant than what we don’t show people--because most of the time we place curtains over those windows to protect ourselves from seeing what fate, circumstance, and the decisions we’ve made did to shape us.

This must have been an extremely difficult novel to write, edit, and ultimately polish, as the level of detail is fairly mind-boggling. There is not a word, phrase, or so much as comma out of place or unnecessary in this work. Even in a world, like ours, that already offers ample excellence in thriller fiction, Trust Your Eyes stands out. It made the synaptic pathways in my brain fire like detonation charges.

Trust me on that.

* * *

If you’d like to learn more about Trust Your Eyes, check out this dramatic book trailer or this excerpt from the novel, read by none other than the author himself.

Part II: an interview with Linwood Barclay

READ MORE:Todd Phillips to Direct Thriller Trust Your Eyes,”
by Jeff Sneider (Variety).


Unknown said...

Marvelous review, Ali (as always). I haven't red any barclay yet, but you have sold me on this one...gone shopping.

Barbara said...

Oh my goodness, Ali, my head is spinning. Odd, Linwood Barclay looks like a perfectly nice man. . .

Ali Karim said...

Thanks Bob and Barb - my experience of thriller writers is that the darker the material the write, the nicer they are - Linwood Barclay is both, a superb writer and one of the nicest people I've met in my literary travels, my wife and kids are all readers of his, if they weren't the conversation at the dinner table would be less surreal

harry said...

Wow well done Ali I'm sold too!