Ali Karim is a Board Member of Bouchercon [The World Crime & Mystery Convention] and co-chaired programming for Bouchercon Raleigh, North Carolina in 2015. He is Assistant Editor of Shots eZine, British correspondent for The Rap Sheet and writes and reviews for many US magazines & Ezines.
I have followed Barclay’s work since his breakout novel No Time For Goodbye, and as much as I found last years The Accident captivating, little prepared me for the intensity and elegance of Trust Your Eyes.
During the reading experience, I found myself laughing, touched, puzzled, horrified and even as a reader who sees well beyond ‘technical miss-direction’ in a narrative, this book got me every time. There’s no “deus ex machine” deployed by Barclay. The clues are clearly visible and in plain sight, but like its title, you really have to trust your eyes. Though not a puzzle book [per se], as its characters are fully realized, breathing a compassionate dimension to the tale, it is a labyrinth, that has the defects and nuances of human nature plated on its walls.
What makes Linwood Barclay’s work so special [and which is on full frontal display] in this book is his voice: the compassionate, non-judgmental hand that holds you by the palm, leading you into places that perhaps you’d rather avoid. The easy going manner in which you are lead, will result in the many shocks along this dark road stopping you dead in your tracks, because the plot has teeth, hidden from view most times, but when that ‘shark bites’ [quoting ‘Mack The Knife’] the shocks are so subtle, but so terrifying that they chill you, make you pause, and most troublingly, make you ‘think’, and contemplate your own reality.
Barclay writes in what some term ‘cheating first person’, as the main story is relayed from the perspective of Ray Kilbride, a freelance cartoonist in a changing market with the printed page going digital, while his younger brother Thomas, a sufferer of a mild form of schizophrenia sees these changes too, but from the point of view of cartography. The world of maps and mapping are turning away from paper to digital with satellite navigation and the internet, with “Whirl360” [a fictionalized version of Google Streetview]. Ray’s journey is interspersed with third person writing, featuring a cast of complex characters, some real, some hidden, and some very bad, all converging into the story, like passengers in a slow motion car crash - one that will result in multiple fatalities including the scream of innocents.
One of the beauties of the world in which the novel plays itself against, is that no one is totally bad, and no one totally good [or innocent], even the real bad guys, have flaws showing their redeeming features. There is morality suffused in the narrative, which at times is so murky, that you may need to bring a torch.
This is a troublesome book to review, as to spoil it for a reader would be the ultimate sin, though the plot is not placed on firm ground, instead it is rooted in quick-sand as nothing is what it seems. In the simplest of terms it is a re-working of Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’, which was based upon Cornell Woolrich’s story ‘It had to be Murder’, rebooted for our digital age.
When widower Adam Kilbride dies in a sudden and tragic accident while mowing his lawn on his tractor, the family lawyer Harry Peyton contacts Kilbride’s eldest son Ray, the graphic artist who lives in Burlington, Vermont, urgently calling him back to the family home in Promise Falls. Ray comes as soon as he can, as Adam Kilbride lived at the family home, looking after his youngest son, Thomas, who suffers from a mild case of schizophrenia [and is not able to be left on his own]. Ray is not surprised, but rather irritated with his younger sibling Thomas when he refuses to attend their father’s funeral, which Ray puts down to Thomas’ mental state.
Ray’s return to his father’s house is troubling, as Thomas’s mania about mapping the world has taken over his life. It seems that Thomas hears voices, and gets calls from ex-President Bill Clinton and is working on a clandestine mission for the CIA. The mission is for Thomas to memorize the entire world’s maps, using an online computer program called ‘Whirl360’ [the fictionalized Google-Streetview]. Thomas believes [via the CIA] that an immanent threat has been identified that will wipe out all digital maps around the world. The CIA under the direction of Bill Clinton have recruited Thomas Kilbride [due to his astounding memory and mental abilitieslike that of the Dustin Hoffman idiot-savant character in “Rainman”] to memorise and map the entire world’s cities so when the ‘incident’ happens, they can use Thomas to guide their various assets around the world. Thomas believes that as the globe’s maps are being digitized, paper maps are being discarded – so when the ‘incident’ occurs, the world will be thrown into chaos. As eccentric as this all sounds, Thomas is totally focused on his mission, spending all his time between meals and sleep working through Whirl360 in order to memorise every alleyway from Lincoln, Nebraska to Osaka, Japan.
Ray learns from Thomas’ psychiatrist Dr Grigorin that his brother’s delusion of the voice of Bill Clinton and the CIA mission is all encompassing, and Grigorin indicates that the voices in his head from his schizophrenia appear to relate to a childhood trauma that her patient refuses to talk about, or acknowledge. Instead Thomas spends his time combing the digitized streets on Whirl360, talking to the voice of Bill Clinton and emailing progress reports to the CIA in Langely. This all seems perfectly innocent to a troubled and deluded mind, until one day Thomas sees in the window of a New York apartment, what he thinks is the face of a woman being murdered by suffocation. Ray is skeptical as it could be a store-front mannequin with a plastic bag over its head, or a sick prank – not a murder in progress. Though Thomas’ obsessive nature will not let that image go, as he prints it out and hands it to Ray for him to investigate.
The book then puts chess pieces on the board, each of these pieces are flawed people, driven people and people with their own agendas that need forwarding. Take the selfish waitress Allison Fitch, who is behind on the rent on the apartment on Orchard Street in New York that she shares with Courtney Walmers; the same apartment that the troubled Thomas Kilbride saw the woman with the plastic bag knotted on her head, via Whirl360.
Added to the pot are the political problems that Congressman Morris Sawchuck finds himself in, following the suicide of fellow politician Barton Goldsmith, and the revelations of their involvement in the ‘war on terror’ deals with potential terrorists from al-Qaeda. To prevent Sawchuck’s political aspirations being ruined, his Machiavellian advisor Howard [‘The Taliban’] Talliman works to deflect his boss’ relationship with Goldsmith. One method Talliman deploys is fixing Sawchuck, a traveling lothario with a new wife; his third and as equally stunning as his first Kathleen [who divorced him due to his wandering eye], and his second, Geraldine who committed suicide rather than use the courts to disentangle herself from Sawchuck. Once married, to Bridget, all things look sorted for the political aspirations of Morris Sawchuck as he now has a wife as stately for senior office as Michelle Obama; until another problem arises for Talliman to resolve, one more martial than marital. It seems that Bridget Sawchuck and the financially troubled Allison Fitch have a linkage, one that could destroy Morris Sawchuck’s political career as conclusively as Barton Goldsmith’s suicide. It takes all the connections and amoral guile of Sawchuck’s advisor Howard Talliman to resolve this little problem. The connections being Talliman’s enforcer, ex-NYPD tough guy Lewis Blocker and an assassin named Nicole.
Along the journey, as the machinations of these flawed and dangerous people emerge from the narrative, we learn how Nicole became the ruthless assassin with the icepick, we learn why Allison Fitch discovers that her inner purpose is to be ruthlessly selfish. This aspect of her nature leads her on a path that will collide with Nicole’s own past. These two women, and the other characters that pepper this dark tale are shown to be the victims of the choices that they made, and how these choices defined them as people.
Jeff Kilbride finds himself going to New York to see if the figure with the plastic bag over her head [in the apartment that Allison Fitch and Courtney Walmers shared] is what Thomas saw online via Whirl360. He does this due to a growing fondness for local journalist Julie McGill a former school mate and lover.
These characters then set off a sequence of events that leads to death, tragedy and an understanding that even the most simplest of liaisons can trigger the worst aspects of human nature.
As the plot strands converge, and the bodies start to pile-up, we see that perhaps there is more to Thomas’s delusions than his brother thought. As the political corrections start to go wrong, Howard Talliman and his cabal of dangerous people turn even more desperate. The closing sections of the novel, gave me the analogy of the Russian Matryoshka Dolls, because as you open one up, another is hidden inside, and then another, and then another. Once the political dirty games are revealed, the plot shifts back to Adam Kilbride’s tragic accident and with one last pull of Linwood’s roped-imagination, the tale comes to a close with a shock on the very last line.
After reading the last word, I sat in total silence - then I re-read the prologue, and then understood the significance of what I considered Barclay’s theme in Trust Your Eyes. The windows that we open in our lives to show people who we are, may have less significance than what we don’t show people; because most of the time we place curtains over these windows in order to protect ourselves from what fate, circumstance and the decisions we’ve made have shaped who we are. Many times these glimpses can be very ugly, that’s why the view from the window should be guarded. Revealing one’s inner self sometimes allows us to understand how we became who we are.
In a world of staggering choice in terms of excellently crafted thrillers, it takes something like Trust Your Eyes to reach and succeed in producing a level of exhilaration that made the synaptic pathways in my brain fire like detonation charges. I’m just blessed that he has another book out early 2013, Never Saw It Coming, a coda to his breakthrough No Time For Goodbye and the novella Clouded Vision.