I am not too good at making accurate predictions, but my gut feeling is that when the envelopes are opened at those award ceremonies where folks much smarter than me name the best novel of 2009, the words “FEAR THE WORST by Linwood Barclay” are going to be written on the piece of paper nestled inside.
If you’re familiar with Barclay’s work, you knew this would be coming. If not, odds are you aren’t living in Great Britain as you read this review, since Barclay is the mother country’s top-selling crime novelist. That he is a resident Canadian who writes crime novels set in the suburbs and small towns of the United States, and whose work somehow resonates to such a great degree in European countries, is one of those intriguing factoids that provides a topic for conversation among members of reading groups. Another puzzle is why he is not a household name in the States, though I suspect that question will become academic once word of FEAR THE WORST gets out. People will start reading it and then begin the run to obtain his previous titles.
Barclay gets the reader’s attention immediately with an everyman protagonist named Timothy Blake, who is ill-suited to handle what is about to befall him. Blake is an auto salesman working for a Honda dealership in Connecticut. The position is a step down for him, given that he was a failure at running his own place, an effort that cost him his self-esteem, his net worth and his marriage. To make matters that much worse, his ex-wife Susanne is now living with Bob Janigan, who, ironically enough, owns a chain of used car dealerships that are a huge success, thanks in large part to a combination of his slimy business practices and a smarmy everyman persona.
Sydney, Tim and Susanne’s 17-year-old daughter, lives with Tim during the summer while she works as a desk clerk at a local hotel. As FEAR THE WORST opens, they are having the usual prickly conversation that daughters of that age and fathers who love them often engage in. By that evening, however, Syd is AWOL from home. Worse, when Tim checks the Just Inn Time, he is told Syd has never worked there. Tim becomes frustrated with the lack of police progress in the case and begins taking matters into his own hands, kicking over rocks in search of his daughter. And someone doesn’t like that.
When Tim is lured out of town on a fool’s errand, his house is trashed. Then one of Syd’s best friends goes missing, even as it appears that Syd may have met with foul play. And worse, much worse, happens. Tim starts looking like the epicenter of every bad thing that is going on around him, which captures the attention of the police. Among his dwindling group of supporters, however, is Janigan. As the two men begin an uneasy, unlikely, yet very believable alliance to determine what happened to Syd and hopefully save her, there are forces aligned against them who will stop at nothing to make sure they don’t accomplish their goal. FEAR THE WORST careens to a heart-stopping and surprising climax, which you won’t soon forget.
I gladly sacrificed a night’s sleep to read FEAR THE WORST in one sitting from cover to cover. There really wasn’t any other choice. It is excruciatingly suspenseful, presenting a puzzling mystery with a solution that isn’t squarely consistent with Occam’s Razor but is close enough --- and it unleashes a bombshell in the final fourth of the book that you’ll never see coming. Oh, and Denton Abagnall from Barclay’s NO TIME FOR GOODBYE makes a surprising return of a sort as well. Those who are calling FEAR THE WORST Barclay’s breakout novel are understating things; this has the makings of a blockbuster.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 21, 2011