Crime writer Linwood Barclay on crime in America

IN Broken Promise, superstar crime writer Linwood Barclay delves into the underbelly of small town America, territory he knows well, he tells David Robinson ahead of his appearance at the Bloody Scotland literary festival
Writer Linwood Barclay. Picture: ContributedWriter Linwood Barclay. Picture: Contributed
Writer Linwood Barclay. Picture: Contributed

In the basement of his home in Burlington, 20 miles south-west of Toronto, Linwood Barclay has a model railway. It’s taken him decades to perfect. There’s a whole whirring miniature world down there, crammed into a 15 foot square room: weathered town centre office blocks, a hotel with faded adverts on its walls, a bus station next to the main train station, and then out through rubbery grass cuttings and embankments and plastic cast-iron bridges, to a countryside of seafoam trees and realistically rusty farmsheds. Between them, freight trains and Canadian Pacific passenger expresses rattle by on ever-switching loops. Now that the kids are grown up and gone, he spends hours there.

Most of the daytime, though, Linwood Barclay, 60, is upstairs in his first floor study writing crime novels that are far less predictable – but every bit as complete and ingenious – as the model railway layout two floors down. His latest, Broken Promise, writhes with twisting plots – at one point I counted ten – in a way that makes single-track thrillers look positively anaemic.

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Although it is a 500-page baggy monster in its own right, it is also the first in a trilogy, so there has to be enough plot left hanging for the next two books. Fortunately there is, although his British publisher, Orion, shamefully doesn’t bother to mention this fact, so some readers may feel shortchanged that not everything is neatly wrapped up by the end. For the rest of us, the only thing wrong with the book is that we’ll have to wait a full nine months for the sequel.

Broken Promise is set in Promise Falls, a fictional small town in upstate New York. We’ve been there before in Barclay’s fiction – in Too Close to Home, Never Look Away and Trust Your Eyes – but since then it has gone to the dogs almost as comprehensively as Bedford Falls in the middle segment of It’s A Wonderful Life. The local amusement park has been mothballed, the hospital is haemorrhaging staff, and the town’s newspaper closed for good just a week after 41-year-old David Harwood (last seen in 2010’s Never Look Away) moved back from Boston for a job as a reporter.

I could tell you exactly why Harwood is checking up on his cousin Marla, who is still getting over losing her baby a year ago, and how he tries to clear her from a charge of murdering the mother of a baby she has mysteriously acquired in the meantime, but you’d have far more fun finding out for yourself. What interests me more is how Barclay got to be such a master of the crime fiction universe in the first place, the kind of superstar chosen to round off the Bloody Scotland crime writing festival in Stirling next weekend (13 September: book now), whose books have been translated into 40 different languages and topped the crime bestseller charts not just in Britain but in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands too. And for that, I have three brief answers: model trains, newspapers and Ross Macdonald.

Let’s begin with model trains, because there’s far more here than meets the eye. For trains, read an ordered childhood. Linwood Barclay’s came to an end the day he watched his father die of lung cancer. He was 16 at the time, and already trying his hand at writing detective fiction in and amongst going to school and helping out on his parent’s cabin and trailer park at Kawartha Lakes, north-east of Toronto. There was a model train track in the family home’s basement there too: not as skilfully accessorised as the one he has now, but a plywood board crammed with tracks for both model trains and cars that met at a level crossing. He and his father used to love to race the cars to beat the trains through the crossing.

“My father’s death was by far the biggest turning point in my life,” he tells me. “We were running a family business and my mother just put everything onto me – so at 16 I was basically looking after her, and running the business, and also looking after my brother, who was 11 years older than me and suffered from schizophrenia.” (His 2011 novel, Trust Your Eyes – elevator pitch: “Rain Man meets Rear Window” – was, he has said, although not based on his brother’s illness, informed by it).

“So I had to grow up – fast. I didn’t have any of those wild teenage years of drunken partying, because I was looking after everything and everyone. Even to this day I feel as though no-one else in my family will know how to do anything and I should do it for them because I used to do everything for my mum and my brother. My own family now are quite happy to tell me they know how to do these things and I don’t need to do everything.”

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That “can do” competence spilled over into his work. After university, he worked as a reporter on a local newspaper (just like, you’ll have already noticed, David Harwood) before applying for a job on Canada’s biggest newspaper, the Toronto Star. They didn’t need reporters, they told him, but could he edit copy? No problem, he said. (He’d never done it in his life).

He turned out to be good at editing, and rose steadily through the newspaper’s echelons. Twelve years on, he was running the paper’s lifestyle section, having already been in charge of its news desk and been its chief copy editor. At that point, one of the paper’s most famous columnists died. The proprietor wondered how he should be replaced. Again, Barclay volunteered; again, it wasn’t something he’d done before.

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The move made sense, but in terms of his ambition and his writing. When he was a news editor, he always hated getting blamed for not having the stories the opposition paper had, no matter what perfectly good reasons he had. Now, and for the next 14 years, he was writing 140 humorous and satirical columns a year, making a name for himself. “And at least with a column, you’re in control. I liked that.”

He liked writing crime novels even more. Even after his father’s death, when he was single-handedly running the cabin and trailer park, he’d been trying his hand at them. A real-life private eye from Buffalo came up to the Barclays’ Green Acres campsite every year; Linwood would ask him about the cases he was working on, think about them as he was doing the cleaning or burying the week’s fishheads; or trying to mend the cabins’ heaters, and he’d bash out the results on his typewriter. “Unpublishable – and, thank god, unpublished,” he laughs, looking back.

At university, he took his interest in crime fiction a stage further. By then he’d discovered the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald, and he wrote a thesis on the private eye in literature, and how their importance lay in their ability to insinuate themselves into other people’s lives. “Macdonald himself said that if Archer turned sideways you wouldn’t see him; he’d just disappear. He’s like Philip Marlow, a modern knight-errant with a moral compass, but the books don’t dwell on him as much as on the people in whose lives he takes an interest.”

These days, not as many people read Ross Macdonald (1915-83) as read Chandler and Hammet, the other two of the Big Three of the hard-boiled American noir novel. But that, says Barclay, is our loss: “He’s a little more cerebral and literary and deserves to be better remembered than he is.” To Barclay, Ross Macdonald was a mentor too. Not only was Macdonald generous enough to read Barclay’s university thesis, but he wrote back with his comments. More than that, he read Barclay’s early attempts at fiction and suggested how they could be improved. And in 1976, when Macdonald was visiting Canada, he and his wife took him out for dinner. “You can’t imagine what that was like. To me, then, it was the highlight of my life.”

For another highlight, try 2008. That was the year in which, having abandoned a four-volume comic crime novel that wasn’t selling particularly well, his standalone thriller No Time for Goodbye was picked for the Richard & Judy Book Club. It sold 636,000 copies in Britain alone. Suddenly, he was famous, and now all he had to do was to write the kind of books that would cement that fame. For someone who can write a page-turner like Broken Promise (the third in the trilogy is “the best thing I have ever written”), that’s no kind of problem at all.

When he’d written his tenth novel, Barclay asked his British editor, tongue in cheek, “How many of these do I have to do before I can write shite and mail it in? He said 15.” This book is his 14th, but don’t expect Linwood Barclay to stop being a classy thriller writer any time soon.

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• Linwood Barclay will be at Bloody Scotland at 5pm on Sunday 13 September, tickets £9.50. Broken Promise is published by Orion price £13.99. For a full Bloody Scotland programme, visit