Linwood Barclay’s Debut Mystery a Madcap Ride

While I was in NYC, the New York Times had a review of the new Harlan Coben book (Caught) which compared Coben to thriller writer Linwood Barclay (specifically his novel Never Look Away).  While vacationing, I read the two books back to back.  But I’ll have to keep you in suspense regarding my take on that argument.   I’ve assembled you here today so we can all hail Linwood Barclay’s whackier side.

I’m not tipping my hand when I say that I enjoyed Barclay’s thriller enough to visit the Oak Park Public Library website and put all his previously published books on hold.  I went and picked them up.  Looking them over, it was like the kid’s matching game “which of these things is not like the other?  Which of these things doesn’t belong?”  Instead of a fear-inspiring title, it was quirky.  Instead of tense, edgy, cover art… it was sort of cartoon-y.  An even bigger tipoff:  a promo line that read “life in the suburbs can be murder.”

Bad Move is hilarious.  The premise is this:  science fiction writer Zachary Walker is on the OCD side when it comes to safety, in the best of circumstances.  Now that he has a wife and a growing family, his urban life (homeless people, drugs, hookers, etc.) seems just too fraught with potential disaster.  So the Walkers sell their nicely appreciated home and move to the suburbs.  But the neatly manicured lawns and the freshly painted new construction homes just put a bright face on the slimy underbelly of the community.   A murdered conservationist, crooked builder, indoor pot farming neighbor, and attractive accountant/dominatrix throw one surprise after another Zach’s way.

What makes it work is the fresh and funny protagonist.  Who but Zach Walker would get so worked up about his wife leaving his keys in the door that he’d try to teach her a lesson by surreptitiously moving her car down the block?  In his mind, Sarah’s response would be to slap her hand to her forehead, say “Oh, no!  I am so stupid!  I never should have left my keys where anyone could take them!  Now they have not only stolen my car, but perhaps will return later and murder my family in our sleep!”  (Needless to say, this is not actual dialogue from the book, I’m making it up to illustrate the point.) When Zach steps forward to admit that there is no actual danger, she will be relieved and grateful, and will have learned a valuable lesson.

What really happens?  She sees the car is gone, calls the police, and gets mad as hell when she realizes the whole thing is a stunt.  Poor Zach.  Life in his mind is so much more satisfying than real life.

That’s why there’s a satisfying bit of karma when Zach snatches what he thinks is his wife’s purse from their shopping cart, tucking it into the trunk of their car and smugly imagining her chagrined admission of how wrong she was and how right he is.   But Sarah’s already learned that lesson, and is wearing a fanny pack.  It’s not her purse.  Zach’s holier than thou purse-snatching leads to the discovery of counterfeit money, pornographic pictures, and yet another body.

This is the first book in a series featuring Zachary Walker – and it’s well-worth reading.  It puts me in mind of Parnell Hall’s Stanley Hastings books (about the world’s most inept private investigator), Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr (professional burglar extraordinaire) series, and of course, the as-yet unpublished works of Karen Burgess (the Paula Berger series about a washed-up actress).  Barclay is a former journalist, married 30+ years, and father to two – and he mines his experiences to great effect in Bad Move.

My plan:  to read the books in order and let you know my related thoughts.  I’m looking forward to exploring Barclay’s transition from humorous mystery to thriller writer.

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