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Barclay's latest a chest-thumping thriller

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Linwood Barclay doesn't waste any time letting you know what kind of novel he's writing. From the first sentence of No Safe House, the Canadian writer makes it clear it's a rough ride ahead: "Richard Bradley had never thought of himself as a violent man, but right now he was ready to kill someone."

Barclay is an American-born, Canadian writer who has made a killing — no pun intended — specializing in thrillers of the domestic variety: ordinary people caught up in extraordinary (and extraordinarily dangerous) circumstances, with often fatal consequences. True to form, No Safe House starts off like a house on fire, but it doesn't take long to douse the flames.

Born in Darien, Conn., Barclay's family moved to Canada during his childhood; he now resides in Oakville, Ont., with his wife. Formerly a humour columnist for the Toronto Star, Barclay has a string of international bestsellers to his name, including his 2012 thriller, Trust Your Eyes, for which Warner Bros. has optioned the film rights. Even novelist Stephen King is a self-professed fan.

There's certainly no denying the popularity of Barclay's novels, but whether it's due to the quality is another question entirely. No Safe House is a quick read, even at 456 pages, making it the perfect pick for a long flight or weekend at the cottage.

Terry, a high school teacher, his wife Cynthia, and their teenaged daughter Grace are a seemingly normal family living in Milford, Conn. But in fact they're still dealing with the aftermath of a terrifying ordeal several years earlier, stemming from the disappearance of Cynthia's entire family when she was a teenager.

As things heat up at home, Grace hooks up with the wrong guy and goes along with his plan for "some real fun." But things don't go as planned, and she and her family find themselves mixed up in a murder.

Unable to go to the police, they resort to collaborating with Vince Fleming, a shady character well-known around town for his criminal enterprises, but to whom they are indebted for saving their lives seven years earlier.

For that full story, see No Time for Goodbye, Bradley's 2007 thriller -- and companion novel to No Safe House -- that firmly launched his career.

Though the thriller is a close cousin to the mystery, the former tends to be more action-oriented than character-driven, and No Safe House is no exception. Readers shouldn't expect the kind of soul-searching engaged in by inspectors Cardinal and Gamache, the formidable detectives in the mystery series by fellow Canadian writers Clive Blunt and Louise Penny, respectively.

This is a testosterone-filled action thriller, chock-full of violence, f-bombs and guns galore, and where it's vital to know exactly what kind of car everyone is driving at all times. No Safe House sometimes plays like a movie-of-the-week, populated with B-list actors, and replete with cheesy dialogue, like this exchange between Terry and Vince:

"'...the only reason I'm not shooting you is because of Jane. For some stupid reason she likes you.' I nodded. I hoped he wasn't lying... But damned if he didn't look like a kid who'd just found out he wasn't getting a pony after all."

It's hard not to be frustrated by the ill-advised decisions made by the main characters; this, more than anything, mires the story in unreality.

Barclay does a decent job of creating tension, but so much of it seems recycled from somewhere else -- a scene featuring power tools, for example, is reminiscent of Marathon Man, the 1970s thriller made into a movie starring Dustin Hofmann -- and Barclay somehow never manages to fully ratchet up the suspense.


Lindsay McKnight works in the arts in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 9, 2014 G8

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Updated on Saturday, August 9, 2014 at 7:59 AM CDT: Formatting.

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