People read novels for different reasons. One reason is escape. Thrillers have been helping their readers escape since the early days of the novel. Matthew “The Monk” Lewis, Wilke Collins, Charles Dickens, all knew how to keep their readers coming back for more by giving them thrills–keep them in suspense and they’ll keep turning pages. While a thriller can become a work of literature, most people who read thrillers read them not for art but for thrills.
Reviewing a book like Fear the Worst by Linwood Barclay brings up the question I faced with Columbine— how to review it. Fear the Worst is an entertaining thriller that hits close enough to home to draw the reader in and keep the pages turning. Its goal is to tell a good story that keeps its readers entertained. To judge it by the same set of criteria used to judge a book like To Kill a Mockingbird or To the Lighthouse seems questionable. One is an apple, the other an orange.
Most good thrillers can be summed up in a line or two. In Fear the Worst the narrator’s teenage daughter does not come home for dinner one night. Weeks later he becomes a suspect in her disappearance and begins to discover how much trouble she was in. If you are a reader of thrillers, that’s probably all you need to know to decide if Fear the Worst is for you.
As a thriller, as an entertainment, Fear the Worst works. Before the daughter disappears, we come to know her and her father well and to like them and to be concerned about what happens to them. Just as the father, who narrates the book, can’t believe his daughter is involved in anything criminal neither can we. As the book continues, there are plenty of twists to keep us turning the pages while the father gets closer and closer to the truth about his daughter’s disappearance.
While good thriller does have well developed characters, it doesn’t spend much time on characterization. Mr. Barclay makes his characters distinctive individuals the way a good artist can convey a unique portrait with minimal use of paint. His characterization adds to the book while it never gets in the way of the plot. By the time the father/narrator has to take dramatic and violent action he has been through so much that his actions are no longer out of character as they would have been when the novel opened.
There are a few problems with Fear the Worst. In order for a non-police officer to solve a crime, we have to believe the actual police force is not capable or not willing. Or the person solving the crime must be so involved in it that he or she cannot go to the police for help. I think Mr. Barclay underestimates his police officer characters. If the level of ineptitude they display in Fear the Worst is accurate, then one has to ask how any crime ever gets solved. To say a book had you racing to find out what happens is to also say it had you skimming over parts of it so you could find out sooner. Fear the Worst did have me doing that. There were times when I felt the suspense generated was unearned, merely manipulation rather than actual tension. The father/narrator, who does not own a gun, is so good in the books climatic gun battle that he really should consider a career change and become a police officer himself. Finally, the plot tends to play fast and loose with the lives of the supporting characters while keeping the major players safe and sound. Some readers may prefer this, of course, those looking for escape, for example.
If you read for escape, and if thrills are the escape you seek, Fear the Worst by Linwood Barclay should do the trick.
But what do you read for?
This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009. My copy of Fear the Worst was an ARC. I gave full disclosure at the time and I’m giving it now. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I have no memory of this book at all. Though it does sound like a pretty good summer read.