A Tap on the Window feels like the quintessential late-summer read. I have to move indoors with my book sooner on August evenings, because the light doesn’t last as long, but the neighbourhood still moves to other summer rhythms. And, so, that old yearning for a page-turner.
Picking up this Linwood Barclay novel reminds me of the feeling that I have picking up a Stephen King novel; whether or not the description pulls me in, the writing style is inviting, and I am unexpectedly engaged with just a few pages.
With A Tap on the Window, this engagement is due to a tightly plotted opening scene, and an almost-immediate connection to character.
The story begins with Cal Weaver offering a ride on a rainy night to a teenage girl. He knows it’s not a smart thing to do, but she knew his son from school.
And, there, in that interstice, between what one realizes is smart and the actions that one takes in contrast to that knowledge, is where tension resides.
But the reader is drawn in not only by this natural tension, but by the fact that Cal Weaver’s actions are driven by grief. His son Scott has died recently, and the tentative connection between this teenage girl and his teenage son is enough to pull him into a situation which he immediately recognizes as risky.
‘Risky’ isn’t the half of it. What Cal Weaver becomes involved in moves from inadvisable to life-threatening in short order. But, first, however, the scene is sketched for the reader, so that now comfortable with Cal himself, the reader can root him in his everyday life. Well, his everyday life turned upside-down, that is.
Upstate New York, the sleepy town of Griffon. Secure but not naive, protected but not isolated, but, more importantly, simmering: residents perceive a threat and, so, the reader is poised to explore that possibility.
“There wasn’t that much crime to worry about here. People locked their doors – we weren’t stupid – but there were no parts of town you feared going into after dark. Shopkeepers didn’t draw metal doors down over their storefronts at the close of business. We didn’t have helicopters with searchlights hovering over the neighbourhood at three in the morning. But there remained a sense of unease, given our proximity to Buffalo, where the violent crime rate was roughly three times the national average, a city that regularly placed in the top twenty most dangerous American cities. There was a fear that at any moment, unruly hordes would surge northward like marauding zombies, putting an end to our more or less tranquil lifestyle.”
Above all, it is the balance between the ideal and everyday reality which creates tension in the novel.
Not only in terms of social security: “”For the most part, no one around here was troubled by rumors of police overstepping their bounds. The citizens of Griffon felt safe in their homes. As long as that sense of security continued, they didn’t need to know the details.”
But in terms of emotional security as well. Cal’s relationship with his wife, Donna is strained by the weight of their shared loss. “I still loved her. As much now as the day we met. But we weren’t talking. We couldn’t find the words. There was nothing to be said because there was only one thing either of us was thinking, and it hurt too much to talk about.”
This emotional trauma cements the credibility of the story. From even the earliest decision that Cal makes, when the reader might say “Really?” as he offers the teenage girl a ride that rainy night, it’s clear that Cal’s motivation resides in his grief, in his desire to make something-like-sense of his son’s death.
His initial involvement and his continued involvement are vitally influenced by Cal’s twinned determination and vulnerability.
“But I knew, as well as anyone, the kind of agony parents went through when they hadn’t heard from their kids, when they had no idea where they were. Like you’re at the bottom of a well and can’t climb out. I had an inkling of what Claire’s parents had to be going through. What I didn’t know was whether getting the police to handle the matter quietly was the way to go.”
One of the most appealing elements of Cal’s characterization is his flawed, human responses to situations. (“Like I was in any position to criticize how any other parents dealt with their kids.”) And, despite the seriousness of his life at this time, there is still room for humour in his occasional reflection on the situations in which he finds himself.
For instance, in speaking of his brother-in-law (who happens to be the Police Chief in Griffon), he notes: “We managed to be civil to one another through most family get-togethers, so long as discussions did not turn to politics, religion, or some of the really contentious topics, like the quickest route to Philadelphia, how much it rained last week, or who was getting better gas-mileage.”
Linwood Barclay’s prose is taut, an uncluttered style characteristic of the thriller genre. Both male and female characters are equally credible, and while the impact of grief on Cal and his wife saturates the story, the momentum is steady and the plot compelling, leading the reader to a resolution which delicately balances the reader’s desire for a positive outcome with a sense of verisimilitude.
A Tap on the Window gets the reader’s fists clenched in all the right places and culminates in a just-right resolution: good summer reading.
Note: I also remember thoroughly enjoying Linwood Barclay’s responses to “The Next Chapter”‘s version of the Proust Questionnaire. When asked where the one place in the world he would most like to be, he answered that he would like to be wherever his wife was. I can imagine the character of Cal giving the same response.