No matter how hard you think your life is, it’s probably better than that of Cal Weaver, the protagonist in Linwood Barclay’s latest anxiety-charged thriller, A Tap on the Window. Weaver is a middle-aged private eye in the fictional upstate New York town of Griffon. His only son, Scott, recently perished in an apparent suicide leap. His wife has become all but a stranger to him, barely coping with their mutual loss by trying to draw, over and over again, a perfect representation of Scott. And now Weaver’s managed to make himself the prime suspect in a murder.
It seems that on a recent rainy night, he’d picked up a teenage hitchhiker, Claire Sanders. She said she wanted a ride home. Partway there, though, she complained of stomach troubles and asked him to stop by an ice cream and burger joint. When she didn’t return from the restroom, Weaver went looking for her...only to find her snugged back in his passenger seat. He quickly realized, though, that this wasn’t Claire; it was a look-alike. Weaver tried to question the second girl, but before she could tell him what was going on, she leapt from his car and disappeared into darkness.
Now Claire has gone missing, her look-alike has turned up dead and the Griffon constabulary figures Weaver knows more about these crimes than he’s telling. Hoping to save himself, the gumshoe launches an investigation that will expose more than a few of Griffon’s secrets and cast doubt on everything he thought he knew about his son’s demise.
Barclay is a 58-year-old former newspaper columnist in Toronto, Canada, whose fifth novel, No Time for Goodbye, started him on the climb into best-seller territory. A Tap on the Window—convoluted but captivating, with ample angst and guilt to spread amongst its players—will likely keep him there.
As a novelist, you started out penning fairly humorous works, such as 2004’s Bad Move, about a work-at-home science-fiction writer, Zack Walker, who finds eccentrics and crimes lurking in the suburbs. But after four Walker books, you began producing twist-driven thrillers with a darker edge. Was that shift made for creative reasons, or was it driven by marketing interests?
Largely marketing. If the Zack books had been selling hundreds of thousands of copies, I’d have kept on doing them. I loved writing them. But they were not big sellers, although I’m pleased to report that people are now finding them, and they go back to print quite regularly. But at the time, it seemed to make sense to drop writing a series character and go darker. Let’s face it. How many people are really successful writing comic crime novels. There’s Janet Evanovich. There’s Carl Hiaasen. There’s—I think that’s it. And there was Donald E. Westlake. God, what a loss.
Your novels are known in part for their quite complicated plots. How much of any book’s story line do you have figured out from the start?
I have a rough plot worked out at the beginning, but the opportunities for twists often present themselves along the way. Sometimes, they get added in on a second or third draft. I do get taken in different directions while writing, but the end point usually remains fairly constant.
Did A Tap on the Window follow this usual plotting approach, or was it somehow a different case?
Tap was a tough book. It underwent a major rewrite. I think at least a third, maybe more, of the first draft did not survive. It was the biggest rewrite I’ve ever done on a book, but I’m pleased with how it finally came together. And a nod to my editors, who saw the problems. It’s painful to get bad news from editors, but they are often right. So, the rewrite included many twists that were not in the original. The underlying story—the thing that we don’t know about until almost the end (these would be the italicized chapters)—didn’t even exist in the first draft.
Your protagonists are usually amateurs at the sleuthing game. But here you tell the tale from the viewpoint of a licensed PI, Cal Weaver. Was this a hat tip to your onetime “mentor in absentia,” detective novelist Ross Macdonald?
I think maybe everything I do is a hat tip to Ross Macdonald. But it seemed time to write about an actual PI, and it also meant I’d have a character I could logically bring back in another book. I’m pretty sure I will bring Cal back, but maybe not for a book or two. He needs time to get his life back together.
So how does Weaver stack up against Macdonald’s Lew Archer?
Archer acts as a window into people’s lives. But the story is not about him; the story is about what he finds out about people. Tap is very much about what happens to Cal. Does that make it more self-indulgent? We never learn a great deal about Lew Archer, but we know everything about Cal. And I think Lew’s probably a better detective. He was one sharp cookie.
Did you interview real-life PIs in order to make Weaver a credible character?
No, not really. When I was in my teens, and ran a cottage resort in Ontario, one of our returning guests was a private detective and I used to talk to him all the time. He was a good friend, and mentor. He was the one who gave me a tip I’ve used in at least one book: When you’re on stakeout, bring something to pee in.
The relationship in this book between Scott Walker and his father seems carefully nuanced. What did you draw on in yourself to flesh out their connections?
I’m a father, and our kids are both grown, and moved out long ago. (My son Spencer, who’s 29, is the one who makes my book trailers.) And we never had with them the kinds of problems Cal had with his son, Scott. But I think, having raised kids, that’s a place your imagination can take you. And life is made up of many small moments, and it was those I tried to capture in describing that relationship.
I occasionally hear complaints that your novels follow the same basic formula every time, with an ordinary guy caught in extraordinary circumstances, his story of escalating worries and troubles told at a pulse-quickening pace. Do you recognize these consistencies, and do they trouble you at all?
Yeah, “pulse-quickening pace” does get annoying. That kind of complaint is like saying, well, in every Spenser novel, a bunch of tough guys show up at his office and try to beat him up. Ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations is what I do because it’s what works best for me. I’m not a cop or ex-military investigator or a secret agent, and none of the people I know are, either. We’re just regular people doing regular jobs, and we know what it’s like to lay awake at three in the morning wondering why our daughter isn’t home yet. That’s what I try to tap into, because it’s what we all know. It’s our common experience.
Can you tell us something about the plot of your next novel? And are you sticking with a one-book-per-year strategy?
I’m contracted for a book year, at the moment, up to 2017. As the books have found a larger audience, I’m doing more rewriting to try to make each novel as good as it can be, so one a year is about all I can handle, although I have been working on a YA trilogy on the side which, when it’s done, I’m going to show my editors. Next year’s book, No Safe House, is a follow-up to No Time for Goodbye, which was a big hit for me back in 2007-2008, particularly in the UK. I am going to revisit those characters seven years later. One thing I don’t think has been explored in crime fiction is that even after the mystery has been solved, its impact can last and resonate for a long time.