A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When the Cutter family’s next-door neighbours, the Langleys, are gunned down in their house one hot July night, the Cutters’ safe, predictable existence is instantly shattered. For violent death to have come so close to them is as shocking as it is inexplicable. The Langleys were an ordinary suburban family. If they could be the victims of an act of random brutality, then surely nobody’s safe. But although he feels guilty for thinking it, Jim Cutter can take one positive from the tragedy: if the Langleys were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, then at least lightning is unlikely to strike twice in the same spot. Unless, of course, the killers went to the wrong house …
My, but I do love Linwood Barclay’s work. His previous novel, No Time for Goodbye, was a thrilling and very emotional ride, and this new book is really just as good. He’s one of the rare auto-buys on my list. Although, perhaps Too Close to Home has less emotion and more compensatory wit than his previous novel.
That didn’t worry me. Occasionally I can do with some wit, even in the midst of murder and mayhem. Frankly I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough and was desperate to know what happened next, and then what happened after that. From the very first moment, we’re right in the thick of things, with Jim Cutter’s son, Derek, preparing to sneak into the Langleys’ house on the night they’re killed. In a brief prologue, he witnesses the slaughter, but says nothing. For a variety of reasons, not all of which are at once apparent. From that point, the pace and tension never let up. The plot really swoops along nicely and the build up is, as ever, superb. As I would expect from this author. I also enjoyed the way the secrets of the whole Cutter family – Jim, his wife Ellen, and Derek – are slowly revealed through the novel. We are not given all the information at once by Jim (our first-person narrator), and of course some of it he doesn’t know himself. Until later. Much later. Including the fact that his son was present at the Langleys’ deaths.
Jim is a great character and I’m more than happy to spend this novel in his company. He’s a failed (but good) artist who digs people’s gardens and cuts lawns for a living. And why he does that and how he got there is a story in itself. Which Barclay cleverly interweaves with the demands of the main plot, so you never notice the joins. Neither is Jim averse to a bit of sharp violence himself. Here he is dealing with the major’s nasty driver, Lance:
He leaned in close to me from behind, his chin over my shoulder and whispered into my ear, ‘That’s a first. Don’t think I ever opened the door for a fucking lawn boy before.’
I drove my elbow back, fast and hard, taking him just below the ribcage. The air went out of him and he dropped.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘That’s my weed-whacking arm. It gets twitchy.’
Jim’s wife, Ellen, I wasn’t so sure of, however – I did find her rather irritating on occasion, but then again, she also is hiding her own secrets which she is too frightened to tell Jim about. So a little bit of odd behaviour here and there is understandable – and yes, Jim does question it. And the explanation at the end is reasonable, I think.
During the story, Jim finds himself and his family mixed up in a series of logical but terrifying situations, all of which test him – and them – to the limit. It may be that, because of this fast pace and the plot demands, then we do lose out on some of the emotional depth of Barclay’s former book – as I’ve already mentioned. But the characters are well described and definitely three-dimensional.
Speaking of characters, I must say how utterly and absolutely I loved Randall Finley, the wicked mayor – and Jim’s bête noire and former boss. I started off seeing him from Jim’s viewpoint and thinking he was a bit of a beast (which of course he undoubtedly is), but then I realised how refreshing, honest to himself and witty he is too, as shown here by Jim:
I’d known long before that my boss was a complete dick. I think that sunk in about an hour or so after he hired me to drive for him, when, stopped at a light, a homeless man approached the major’s window for some change. Finley buzzed down the window and, instead of tossing the guy a quarter, said, ‘Here’s a tip, pal. Buy low, sell high.’
Hateful, naturally, but hell it has style. I changed my opinion entirely: selfish, determined, amoral and absolutely kick-ass, Randall is a total tour de force of writing and even, occasionally, shows a softer side. Only occasionally, thank goodness. Anything more might ruin his street cred. I’m only sorry that the closing moments we share with him aren’t exactly his finest hour. Dammit. Randall deserved a better finish. Definitely. I could happily have read the whole book from his point of view too. And very clever of the author to give us a character that his protagonist doesn’t like (for good and moral reasons) and still make the reader see him in a different way. Fabulous.
That said, I did groan inwardly when I realised Ellen was a key figure in her local literary world and thus that there would be a focus on writers and writing. Yes it does fit in with the plot, but I do wish authors would look at another profession. As I’ve said before. Mind you, I did enjoy this little throwaway comment, from Ellen:
‘Writers, honestly, a lot of them are really nice, but they’re so fucking needy. They need constant attention.’
Well said, my dear! And so true, of course. However, there is a point towards the end of the novel where Jim thinks about the situation involving the bestseller book that’s a mysterious and key part of the plot and says something to himself that I personally believe nobody who isn’t a writer would ever think. Ah, to avoid plot-spoilers, let me put it like this: I’m utterly convinced that only an author might even briefly consider professional writing fraud as a greater trauma than adultery. As Jim isn’t an author, I fear the character consistency falls down at that moment. That’s Barclay speaking, not Jim Cutter. Still, it’s a minor point only, and the completion of the bestseller plotline (and indeed the conclusion of this novel itself) is quietly measured and poignant. Lovely.
So, what can I say? If you like crime novels, this is one of the best. If you like crime novels with good characters, a great plot, a hell of a lot of exciting, edge-of-the-seat action and some quieter thought-provoking moments too, then absolutely don’t miss this. I’m already getting my order in for his next.
Too Close to Home by Linwood Barclay (Orion, 2008), ISBN: 978 0 7528 8862 0)
[Anne thinks it’s best to keep a close watch on the neighbours, at all times. For more information on her voyeuristic activities, and more, please click here.]