Promise Falls has a history. You might not think so, but it matters.
“Are we too insignificant up here: A couple of hours away from New York? Is that what we’re foolish enough to think? Let me tell you something, my friend. You want to strike fear into the hearts of Americans? Then go to the heart of America. The big cities are the obvious targets. But why not Promise Falls? Why not….” [Far From True (2016)]
And what are things like in the heart of America? In Linwood Barclay’s trilogy?
‘This is a town that’s living in fear. This is a town where people are afraid to leave their doors unlocked even when they’re home, in the middle of the day. There is, and I think some of you may snicker when I say this, but there’s an evil in this town. Something’s very wrong.’ [Far From True (2016)]
The source of this fear is complex. It’s not a single instance of violence. But there are significant markers which still impact some Promise Falls’ residents, even years later.
“It ws a long time ago. Seven, eight years? The Langley murders. Father, mother, son, all killed in their home one night. Derek and his parents lived next door, and for a period of a day or two, Derek was a prime suspect. The real killer was found and Derek completely exonerated, but it had to be a scarring experience.” [Broken Promise (2015)]
At the heart of the trilogy is the murder of a young woman named Olivia Fisher.
“You had your whole life ahead of you. Just finishing up school, ready to fly on your own. Whoever did this to you, he didn’t just take you away from me. He killed your mother, too. It just took longer where she was concerned. It was a broken heart that caused her cancer. I know it. And I guess, if a broken heart can kill ya, he’ll get me eventually, too. Of course, it wasn’t just him that broke my heart. There’s plenty of blame to go around.”
Each of the trilogy’s three volumes has one single first-person perspective and a wide range of third-person narratives; each man has a degree of proximity to a suspenseful situation which dominates that respective volume.
“’Really?’ I might have sounded surprised, but I wasn’t. Grieving families often left the rooms of those they’d lost untouched. It was too painful to go in there. Cleaning out a bedroom was a final acknowledgment of what had happened. And even if the bedroom could be used by another family member, who wanted to be the relative that moved into it.”
But even though there are major crimes and betrayals, what fuels the trilogy is the quieter, everyday kind of violation.
“Jan had never been who she claimed to be, and it made everything I’d once felt for her false in retrospect.” [Broken Promise (2015)]
The ordinary noises we hear in the night, from childhood through adulthood.
“The cover page features a drawing of a little girl walking through a forest at night. It was titled ‘ Noises in the Night by Crystal Brighton’.
There was a yellow sticker attached that read: ‘NOT a comic book.’
I looked back at the house, to a second-floor window, presumably Crystal’s bedroom. She was silhouetted against the light, watching me.”
So while Promise Falls is the setting for the trilogy – and the town does hold its shape just as well as the towns in Stephen King’s novels – the emotional landscape is just as important.
Ultimately the success of the novel lies with its characters. One notable quality – in a genre known for its stereotypes – is the credibililty of the wide range of characters (although the small town is fairly – but not entirely – homogeneous in terms of ethnicity). In particular, the female characters are sketched fully and broadly, a quality which has been absent in too many thrillers.
Related to this is the author’s skill in balancing acuity with ambiguity. He knows just when to drop into neutral pronoun usage, to allow readers to run with their own assumptions and prejudices, without sacrificing a consistent attention-to-detail which rewards careful readers.
Halfway through the final volume of the trilogy, I began to worry that there was no way to successfully resolve the many threads that appeared to be unravelling, whipping around in the whirlwind of developments as the suspense increases.
Although I’ve read and enjoyed one other Linwood Barclay novel, that wasn’t enough to settle my nerves; I resolved that I could be a little disappointed and still acknowledge the strengths I’d observed in the three works…but I wasn’t disappointed at all.
“So I was back where I’d started.
There were other issues with the Fisher crime.
The witnesses. Or, at least, the potential witnesses. There’d been so many of them. Twenty-two, according to Rhonda Finderman’s notes.
Twenty-two people who heard Olivia Fisher’s screams.
And did nothing.”
Linwood Barclay can hold a whole lot of voices in his head – more than twenty-three if one counts supporting characters who recur and hold their own on the page – and there was not a drop of disappointment.
This trilogy has shifted me from being a Linwood Barclay reader to being a Linwood Barclay fan.