No Time for Goodbye
by Linwood Barclay
Published by Bantam Books
352 pages, 2007
Reviewed by Ali Karim
One of the principal delights in book reviewing is discovering a gem, a work that pushes the bar just a little higher -- and that is exactly what No Time for Goodbye does. The biggest surprise for this reviewer is that I’d never read any previous works by Canadian author Linwood Barclay, which made finding No Time just that much sweeter.
It may be a cliché to say that this novel is impossible to put down, but for me that was true. I started reading No Time late one evening -- a mistake -- and I was damned if I was going to let my fatigue stop me from finishing. This meant brewing a mug of very strong coffee past midnight, just so I could finish Barclay’s haunting tale.
No Time for Goodbye has a great premise, and a cast of real people trapped in a terrifying and totally extraordinary situation. Fourteen-year-old Cynthia Bigge is a troublesome young girl, caught out late one night with her boyfriend Vince Fleming -- a bad boy from a family of criminals, whom Cynthia’s parents dislike. While fooling around in the back end of a car with a case of booze, this pair are spotted by her father, Clayton, who immediately hauls Cynthia back home. Following a huge family row, fueled by the booze she had shared with Fleming, the girl storms off to her bedroom, locks the door, and falls into an all-consuming slumber. Come morning, Cynthia -- full of remorse, and with her head throbbing from the drink -- struggles downstairs, only to find that her mother, Patricia, her father and her elder brother, Todd, have all vanished. There’s no note of explanation, no signs of life, and no clues as to their whereabouts.
It’s understandable that Cynthia would be worried -- and she has good reason, because even 25 years later, her family’s disappearance remains a complete mystery.
The adult Cynthia Bigge has now become Cynthia Archer. She’s married to a high school English teacher named Terry Archer, and they share a modest house in Milford, Connecticut, with their 8-year-old daughter, Grace -- not far from the Bigges’ old home on Hickory Street. Terry has had to cope throughout their marriage with Cynthia’s longing to learn the fate of her family. Naturally, rumors about what really happened have formed and spread over the last quarter-century. Some say a serial killer abducted the Bigges; or maybe they were involved with a criminal gang. Most worrisome to Cynthia are rumors that point the accusatorial finger directly at her. Terry tries his best to console and support his wife, even when she insists on appearing on a reality-TV program called Deadline, during which the family’s disappearance in re-enacted, in hopes of jogging some viewer’s memory about that long-ago night. It’s hard for the teacher, because he can see how Deadline producer Paula Malloy doesn’t really care about Cynthia’s childhood trauma; she’s just chasing ratings and exploiting the public’s ghoulish, voyeuristic appetite for tragedy.
Supporting Cynthia, Terry, and their daughter through all of this is Tess Burman, Cynthia’s elderly aunt and her only living relative. After her parents and brother vanished, Cynthia was brought up by her aunt Tess, so their bond is strong. Cynthia tells Terry that Tess struggled to raise her, not just emotionally but also financially, as she had a modest job. Somehow, though, Tess, made sure that Cynthia got through university and graduated. It was during her higher-ed years that Terry met Cynthia, and after a short courtship they married and settled back in New England. When Grace was born, Cynthia gave up her career in order to look after her daughter. Money is tight in the Archer household, with Terry being a teacher; however, he loves his job, and school principal Roland “Rolly” Carruthers is a personal friend not only of Terry, but also Cynthia. And though a number of Terry’s students are difficult, he takes his teaching role very seriously, even helping disadvantaged pupils such as Jane Scavullo, a troubled teenager who Terry encourages in her reading and creative writing.
But all of that peace is shattered, following Cynthia’s appearance on Deadline. After a fake clairvoyant is exposed, she and Terry return to their psychiatrist, Dr. Naomi Kinzler. But Kinzler proves to be of little help, as Cynthia grows increasingly anxious to discover whatever happened to her family in 1983.
That’s Barclay’s general set-up in No Time for Goodbye. As you can see, there’s a large array of characters -- both past and present, and troubling besides -- who play parts in Cynthia’s past and future.
Then things start to go seriously south for the Archer family.
Cynthia spots a brown car in their neighborhood, just following her and Grace, as they walk to Grace’s school. Fearing for her daughter’s safety, she starts projecting her paranoia onto Terry. They visit her aunt Tess, who in confidence speaks to Terry and tells him a secret that she has kept from Cynthia all these years. On their way back from visiting Tess, Cynthia and Terry discover that their house has been broken into, and left on their kitchen table is a tatty black fedora hat -- the same type of hat that Cynthia’s father, Clayton, used to wear. This story’s tension is ratcheted up another notch, as Cynthia becomes convinced that her family are not dead, after all. She persuades Terry to engage the services of Denton Abagnall, a private investigator, and have him re-examine what happened on that fateful night so long ago.
The trail will ultimately lead to several deaths, and to the P.I. unearthing dangers from the past that should perhaps have been better off left alone. Cynthia starts to lose a grip on her sanity, as she begins seeing figures from out of her younger days -- including someone she believes is her dead brother, Todd.
When the Archers find a letter and map in their house, supposedly indicating where Cynthia’s long-lost family are “hidden,” the police finally start to develop an interest in this cold case. They’re especially intrigued by the fact that the letter appears to have been typed on husband Terry’s ancient Smith-Corona machine. At which point a terrified Cynthia flees, leaving Terry to question everything. He has no better options than to pick up the leads left behind by detective Abagnall, many of which point to the involvement of his wife’s ex-boyfriend, bad boy Vince Fleming.
Like the best literary thrillers, No Time is a very difficult novel to review, because revealing too much will spoil both the journey Terry Archer has to endure, and the story’s twisting conclusion.
I can say, though, that when tenacious police detective Rona Wedmore is assigned to this case, she discovers -- based on that map left in the Archer home -- a car and two decomposed bodies in a nearby lake. But before DNA results can be found, more danger assaults the Archer clan, in the shape of mysterious figures determined to no longer remain safely in history. Their re-emergence will lead to deaths in the present. It seems that the disappearance of Cynthia Bigge’s family was far more complex than even she imagined -- and the past is far closer than she supposed.
When I finally finished reading No Time for Goodbye, I sat in silence for a moment, my caffeine-addled thoughts wrapped around the incredibly touching journey I had just traversed. This novel reminds me of the suburban nightmares plotted by Stephen King’s “double,” Richard Bachman, and Thomas H. Cook. It’s reminiscent, too, of the novels of Harlan Coben (The Woods), though Barclay’s work is much, much darker.
One is left wondering, after finishing this novel, whether some of your own family secrets could prove to be your undoing. It’s said that “blood is thicker than water,” but in this novel it’s the family that ends up bloody. Anyone not riveted by Barclay’s tale and the emotional punch it carries must be made of stone. | November 2007
Ali Karim is an industrial chemist, freelance journalist and book reviewer living in England. In addition to his being a regular January Magazine contributor, he’s also the assistant editor of Shots, and writes for both Deadly Pleasures and Crime Spree magazines. Karim is an associate member (and literary judge) for both the British Crime Writers’ Association and the International Thriller Writers. He’s currently working on Black Operations, a violent science-fiction-tinged thriller.