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BAD MOVE by Linwood Barclay: Book Review

“For years, I envied my friend Jeff Conklin, who, at the age of eleven, found a dead guy.” I ask you, who could resist a line like that?

Bad Move, by Linwood Barclay, has that as its opening line.  And it just gets better.

Writing a humorous mystery is obviously very hard to do since so many writers fail at doing it.  Barclay, in what was his first novel, does a perfect job combining laugh-out-loud humor with a cleverly plotted story.  There are so many seemingly throw-away lines in the novel that end up tying the story into a perfect package that at the end I was truly impressed by Barclay’s cleverness.  Backpacks thrown down where they shouldn’t be, a teenager’s desire for a tattoo, a man lacking a sense of smell–the items of real importance are mixed so cleverly with the red herrings that I didn’t recognize them for what they were. Barclay must be familiar with Anton Chekhov’s line, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”  All of Barclay’s rifles were aimed well and fired.

Zack Walker and his family have moved from Toronto, although that city isn’t named in the book, to the suburbs for what he views as a safer life.  Zack sees danger everywhere–keys left in the car in the driveway (a car thief might be lurking), a hair blower in the bathroom sink (possible electrocution), a front door left unbolted (a burglar’s dream).  But his every effort to try to impart cautionary tales to his wife and teenage son and daughter lead them to see him as a paranoid control freak, if not worse.  But, unable to stop himself from “teaching them a lesson,” he blunders on and eventually lands in the middle of corruption and murder in his safe, suburban environment.

It’s clear that Zack only wants to teach his family important lessons, but each one makes him appear more foolish than the one before. In his attempt to show his wife that she shouldn’t leave her purse in her shopping cart when she moves to another aisle, he slips the bag under his jacket and goes to his car to hide it in the trunk.  He waits there for his wife to leave the store, upset that her bag has been stolen.  But when she gets into his car, she has no purse and isn’t upset.  She tells him that she’s realized that wearing a fanny pack is easier than carrying her heavy purse while she’s shopping, so in fact she didn’t have her purse with her at all.  So who’s purse does Zack have in his car?  The story goes on from there.

Chapter 15, in which Zack and his son attend a parent-teacher meeting with the son’s science teacher, is the funniest piece of writing I’ve read anywhere in years. The beauty of it is that it’s totally a part of the story.   It’s not humorous lines gratuitously thrown in to make the reader laugh but rather a deeper look into the mind of the hero and his total obliviousness to how his son and the teacher view his actions during the meeting.  It’s funny and true at the same time.

My only regret after reading Bad Move was that I had never heard of the author until he was recommended to me a couple of weeks ago.  He’s a top-selling novelist in Canada and the United Kingdom and the author of several more books following Zack Walker, in addition to stand alone thrillers.  I guess I’ve got a lot of catching-up to do.

You can learn more about Linwood Barclay at his web site.