Linwood Barclay touched a nerve of mine in his wonderful new thriller, NEVER LOOK AWAY. Actually, he took that nerve, pinched it, stomped on it, and rolled it on the ground all within the first few pages.
About a quarter-century ago, I took my ungrateful and unappreciative sons to a theme restaurant named after a giant rodent who is not Mickey Mouse. I fished into my pocket to give quarters to my older son; when I looked down, my younger son (three years old at the time) was gone. It only took me a minute to find him --- he had wandered down the hall and, wise beyond his years, was heading out of the place --- but I have never known panic like I knew on that Sunday afternoon. That is, until Barclay begins describing the arrival of the Harwood family --- Dave, Jan and four-year old Ethan, of Promise Falls, New York --- at the Five Mountains Amusement Park and the subsequent disappearance of Ethan. Boom. Barclay puts you right there, up close and personal. If you’ve ever had a small child in your care wander off, all of the emotions that you went through will come rising back to the forefront when you read the first few pages of this novel.
NEVER LOOK AWAY would be remarkable enough solely on the basis of those opening pages, but Barclay is just getting warmed up. Ethan is found, but then Jan goes missing as well. And she doesn’t turn up so easily. Dave is concerned because Jan has confessed to him that she has been having suicidal thoughts. Barry Duckworth, the Promise Falls, New York, police detective in charge of investigating Jan’s disappearance, is concerned as well, but not about suicide. Duckworth is a tenacious investigator who leaves no stone unturned, and he is unable to confirm anything that Dave has told him. Gradually, Duckworth comes to believe that Dave knows a lot more than he is letting on. The reader is aware that what Dave is telling Duckworth is true; it’s just that the evidence doesn’t bear it out, pointing to something far more sinister. When Leanne Kowalski, Jan’s co-worker, also goes missing, things look even worse.
Dave is concerned that his wife’s disappearance may have something to do with the plans a developer has for a private prison. Dave, a reporter for a fading Promise Falls newspaper, has been asking tough questions and has been warned off of the story. He accordingly begins his own investigation into Jan’s disappearance, and it takes him places he never wished to go. Dave’s relatively peaceful life is in a tailspin, and it just keeps getting worse. And then, near the end, the unthinkable happens. Again.
You must read NEVER LOOK AWAY. Barclay’s prose has been getting darker and darker with each new novel that releases, and this latest one comes close to being black as pitch, though there’s a bit of light in spots. Barclay also creates some of his most interesting and memorable characters to date, not all of whom will make it to the last page. Oh, and one more thing concerning the prose. About halfway through the book, Barclay pens a scene set in a Denny’s that, while brief, contains some of his best writing to date, which is really saying something. But wait. There is also a chapter --- I won’t tell you which one, but it’s past the halfway mark --- that begins with a great paragraph describing a car that’s just this side of hunk-a-junk, and within a couple of sentences Barclay makes you see that vehicle, inside and out, as if it was sitting in your driveway. That’s hard to do, but he makes it look easy. What is even more difficult, however, is to create a seamless plot with no loose ends. Barclay has that covered as well. He even takes care of the cat.
Read NEVER LOOK AWAY and you’ll know what I mean. You will be loaning this book to friends and never getting it back.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 9, 2010