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Onyx reviews: No Safe House by Linwood Barclay

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 07/23/2014

When bad things happen to people, the impact can for last years. This truism is usually phrased "when bad happen things to good people," but it is relevant no matter whether the person is good or bad. 

The last time the Archer family went through a trying ordeal, patriarch Terry turned to Vince Fleming for assistance. Vince isn't a terribly good person, but he helped the Archers out of their sticky situation and, as a result, he now wears a colostomy bag. So it's easy to understand why he isn't eager to hear from the Archers again.

Vince is a small-time hood who makes a living by any means possible, usually on the wrong side of the law. He has a small but loyal team, and his henchmen aren't terribly bright, which means they don't pose a huge threat to his leadership. It also means, however, that they can be counted on to mess up from time to time. Vince's current gimmick is holding onto things for people who are worried about being caught with said items in their possession, be it huge quantities of cash, stolen property, weapons or drugs. For this service, he charges a large percentage of the item's value, because he is assuming their risk—a risk he minimizes through a fairly original strategy that gives rise to No Safe House's title, albeit indirectly.

No Safe House is a sequel to Barclay's 2007 thriller, No Time for Goodbye. In both the fictional and the real world, seven years have elapsed. Cynthia and Terry Archer are coping with the stress of that earlier incident and with their rebellious fourteen-year-old daughter, Grace, though Terry is handling things better than his wife. After yet another angry outburst, Cynthia decides she needs to get away from the family, relocating to an apartment to give herself some space. It's a selfish move that effectively turns Terry into a single father of an angst-ridden teen, but he is an understanding man who doesn't press the issue often.

Grace finds herself in a predicament, though. Her ne'er-do-well boyfriend, the son of one of Vince's flunkies, encourages her to break into a house with him so he can take a sporty car for a joyride. The owners are on vacation, he says, and he knows the alarm codes, so there's no risk. Famous last words. The boy has a gun, which he gives to Grace to hold. It turns out that there's someone else is in the house. In the darkness, there's a gunshot (Grace isn't sure if she fired it or if someone else did), and she flees home. Her father, understanding how this ill-advised adventure can ruin Grace's life, decides to take matters into his own hands. They return to the scene of the crime and find enough evidence to terrify them. The boyfriend won't return Grace's texts, and there is blood in the kitchen.

Without his wife to turn to, Terry seeks out Vince again. He's an English teacher, after all, and not adept at handling violent or criminal situations, regardless of how many times he finds himself in them. However, there are other forces at play. A ruthless duo is invading homes, insisting that the owners give them something, without specifying what they are seeking. No questions are allowed, and failure to produce the object leads to a violent end for the homeowners. The "no questions" strategy feels a bit like a gimmick designed to hide details from the reader, but it is effective nonetheless.

This is a full blown thriller, not of the man falsely accused variety but rather a man trying to keep his family safe and out of trouble. The story is told from multiple viewpoints, with Terry acting as a first-person narrator and the other chapters in third person, an approach that gives readers a little more intimacy with the man who drives much of the action through his decisions, be they good or ill advised.

Barclay has cleverly designed this sequel so that people unfamiliar with No Time for Goodbye are brought up to speed without spoiling all the details of the earlier book, so a reader will be encouraged to go back to it. It does, however, benefit from being a sequel because the three members of this tightly knit but fragile family share a deep history that goes beyond the typical backstory of a thriller. Once things start cascading out of control (and it doesn't take long), there's little time for reflection and to develop background, but it's felt all the same.

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