Tag Archives: Thriller

Too Close To Home by Linwood Barclay

After reading a few intense books I like to settle down to read something light or a thriller. This time I picked up Too Close To Home by Linwood Barclay. Never having read him before my interest was piqued by the blurb of the book. What’s more frightening than your next-door neighbours being murdered? Finding out the killers went to the wrong house… The next line clinched it for me – For the Cutter family, the idea that they may have been the intended target seems crazy.

For a murder mystery to thrill one always judges it rather unfairly by the standard of wonderment felt during the youthful dalliance with Christie. A quick read this one, and contrary to my expectations a well-handled plot. Barclay’s writing delivers as he manages to give the reader numerous suspects and peels back the layers of their compunctions slowly and surely. With likable characters he reveals their back-stories and has the reader connect to the Cutter family (Jim, Ellen and Derek) on both the emotional and intellectual level. A hardworking people they have pulled themselves up, on stairs made of the sands of lost dreams and human frailty. With the police foolishly making incorrect assumptions and pinning their sights on Derek, the teenage Cutter, it falls on his father Jim Cutter to unravel the plot for them. While the reader is engaged in figuring out how a 10 year old secret hidden in a salvaged computer is raison d’etre for the murder, multiple scenarios line up for Jim to wade through: What does a best selling author and professor fearful of ? What is Ellen hiding from Jim? Is Derek’s trauma at his friend’s murder obscuring something more? How does a forgotten boy’s suicide suddenly need to be looked into now? A corrupt politician and his rotten chauffeur, a girl who was rescued by Jim, a gay teacher and his paramour, Jim’s new employee – the list is endless for Jim to sort through. Jim’s own biases towards most of the characters conflict his judgement pushing the motley of narratives together and throwing them apart equally swiftly.

A vein of dullness runs through the story-line, the characters and the setting are nothing glamorous and the author makes it a point to express the wanness of the town ironically called Promise Falls, and the sallowness of its inhabitants. As the story progressed I was impressed by how cleverly Barclay built up the story towards an expected outcome, walked away from it completely and finally circled back uniting it at the end with what can only be called poetic justice. By the time the book moves closer to the end and before the murderer and their reasons are revealed, one can guess the end. However, the tension continues to the end as the interweaving plots converge. An author whose other books I would certainly want to read.

Originally published: 25 September 2007
Genre: Thriller

Short Story : She did it

Her eyes shone feverishly, she kept checking the time on her watch. She was waiting. Waiting for the phone to ring. It was about time. She should have reached by now. Why did the phone not ring? Her anxiety broiled inside her, yet she was a picture of serenity. No one could have guessed, seeing her sitting there, in the hotel’s café sipping her morning tea. Thoughts raced through her mind. She could picture the scene vividly after all, she had created it.

The maid would have reached by now. She would have opened the house. We have given her the extra key. I hope she hasn’t forgotten it at home. Gosh, why is this taking so long. Knowing Sid would be sleeping and wouldn’t wake up she would not bother to ring the bell. Did she have to go back home to get the key. No, no that mustn’t be, it would disrupt her best laid plans. Months of planning would go to moot.

By now she’d have made his tea and should have knocked on their bedroom door, “Chai is ready, Bhaiya,” and entered to find him. Amrita could picture the scene, what she would see, the blood on the sheets, Sid lying on his back, arms splayed out, with his throat slit, just as she had left him last night, dead! So very dead!

Almost a year and half of planning, putting all the pieces together, tying up the loose ends! She’d be free now!

No, not yet! She reminded herself. She had to play the grieving widow for a while.

“Where was Shimoli?” she thought impatiently, she needed someone to be with her when she got the call. To be credible witness to her shock! On the other hand it was good she was a little late. The call hadn’t come in yet. There was definitely something wrong.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” apologized a visibly flustered Shimoli, “woke up late and everything just went downhill from there. Hope you weren’t waiting too long? Have you ordered anything?”

Amrita quickly smiled at her friend and colleague at the Mumbai office, a picture of calm, hiding the turmoil in her heart. She was an actress par excellence, she had Sid to thank for that.

“No worries. I was waiting for you, what will you have?” asked Amrita.

Just then she heard her phone ring, it was their home landline number.

“Just a sec, got to take this one” she said rolling her eyes, “It’s the ritual maid call, wanting to know what to prepare for Sid’s breakfast!”

“Yes, Kashi Bai,” said Amrita.

“Hello Amrita, this is Girish,” she heard the voice of her neighbor on the floor above theirs, “Where are you?”

“I’m in Mumbai, Girish, for work, been here since Monday. Is everything okay? Where’s Kaishi Bai?” asked Amrita looking genuinely perplexed.

“Are you alone? Is someone with you?” he asked again.

“No, I’m with a friend,” she replied, “What’s the matter, Girish?”

“I’m sorry Amrita, there’s some bad news. Sid’s been hurt, you need to come back immediately!” he said.

“Hurt! How? What’s happened?”

“It’s bad Amrita!” he said, “Can I speak to your friend?”

“Yes, sure,” said Amrita and handed the phone to a confused Shimoli.

“Oh my God!” gasped Shimoli after listening to Girish for a few minutes.

She put down the phone and looked at Amrita and tried to hide the horror in her eyes.

“I’ll arrange a cab to take us to Pune immediately!” Shimoli said.

Amrita let Shimoli take over the arrangements. She called their Boss, Apeksha out of earshot from Amrita, all the while sneaking anxious glances at her.

It took all of Amrita’s self-control to appear confused and dazed and let Shimoli treat her like something fragile, something that would easily break.

On reaching her Condo in Pune, Amrita rushed up to find the cops and her neighbors Girish and his wife Kanika, the maid Kashi Bai was slumped in a corner of the living room. And her brother-in-law disoriented sitting on the sofa with his head in his hands and blood on his shoeless feet.

“Where’s Sid?” she asked fearfully.

“Oh! Amrita!” Kanika engulfed her in her ample bosom, “You poor girl, how are you going to take it!” she sobbed.

“Sid’s been murdered in your own home, in your bed!” said Girish softly, as if the softness of tone would mitigate the shock of his words.

“How is that possible,” Amrita shouted, looking at the cops. She tried to rush towards her bedroom but, Kanika held her back.

“Don’t go in there, believe me, you don’t want to go in there!” she cautioned.

The cops questioned her about where she had been and why. In the meanwhile, Sid’s parents had arrived from Jaipur. Amrita let her father-in-law take control; play acting the shocked and bereaved wife to the hilt.

Later Amrita congratulated herself, “I should get an award for my acting abilities,” she thought. But then it came naturally to her, didn’t it, after all she’d been doing it for years. Sid had made her the actress she was today.

Siddharth had seen Amrita at his close friend’s wedding, who was her cousin. He had told his parents who had sent out feelers through common acquaintances. Her parents had been quite excited, they couldn’t believe their luck. A software engineer with TCS and working on a project in New Jersey, he was a huge catch for the daughter of a small garment shop retailer in Saharanpur. A meeting of the families had been arranged.

Amrita was vivacious and fun loving, a brilliant artist though not very good in academics. She had given her mother many sleepless nights worrying over the scraps she would get into, going out with friends to movies and parties that too with boys, a total no-no in a conservative city like theirs.

“No one wants a fast girl as their daughter-in-law,” she had warned Amrita to appear demure like her other cousins in front of Sid’s family.

Amrita at twenty-one couldn’t wait to get out of sleepy, stifling and conservative Saharanpur. USA was like a dream come true. She had to make sure his family liked her. That’s when the acting had begun. She had played her part convincingly. Sid and his family had gone back happy with the deal that had been brokered the perfect Indian bride and enough dowry, after all the parents had put their life savings into their son.

As Sid only had fifteen days left to return, the wedding was put together quickly, with barely any time for the young people to get to know each other. They left for Jaipur to stay with his parents till his return to the US. If Saharanpur had been backward and boring, living with Sid’s parents was archaic; she had to wear a saree all the time with her head covered all day long. Smile for all the relatives that trooped in to ‘see’ the new bride and bear their humiliating inspection. She was pretty, thank God, for that, but was too tall according to one Aunt and too thin for another. How will she bear healthy children said another, her hips are to narrow.

“It’s only till we get to the US,” she thought to herself, “Just a matter of a few days.”

Her Father-in-law though had a different take.

“If you take her with you now she’ll never learn the ways of our family, Sid. Leave her here for a few months,” Amrita overheard him.

Sid had left and she was alone with them. She had to be the perfect daughter-in-law, cooking and serving the family and eating after everyone had finished. She had acted and pretended to be ok with everything, holding her tongue at every comment thrown her way and cried into her pillow at night. The day her mother-in-law had hurled her bowl of daal on her face because she had forgotten to put enough salt in it, was one of the worst, she’d only gotten through it all reminding herself that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Only a little time and then she’d be out of here in another country, away from them. With Sid life would be different, she consoled herself.

After six months of hell she was finally on her way, to the US. Looking forward to a brighter future with Sid, who would be a progressive male, after all he had lived in the US for three years. The first few weeks were heady and romantic and she loved being there.

Till the first fight they had. Over her wanting to buy a dress and go dancing. He’d thrown a fit, shouting and screaming at her and then storming out of the house. After that, had come days of cold and silent treatment. With no one to talk to, a scared Amrita had begged and pleaded till he finally came around. She had assumed that this was a just one off incident…till it recurred again…and again…and again…at the smallest of pretexts, anything that angered Sid.

It wasn’t all bad though, a happy Sid was generous. Buying her expensive gifts designer bags, jewellery, etc. It was easier to act, to keep him calm.

Sixteen years and two children later, moving from one place to another the acting had continued…The mild and docile wife, who did not react to his moods, to his temper tantrums, his throwing things at her. The dutiful daughter-in-law, their treating her like a servant, their nagging and interference, Sid’s sending money to them regularly. To the world including her own family her life was perfect, for Amrita didn’t believe in airing her dirty linen. And even if she did, who could do anything for her. She was after all an Indian woman, her own parents would tell her to adjust.

Two things helped her to survive, her sketching and her voracious appetite for fiction, where she could escape into another life.

They had moved to Mumbai five years ago. Sid had invited his Boss with his wife for dinner. Over conversation Sid had boasted of Amrita’s drawing abilities and her sketch pads were pulled out. Mrs. Boss, Apeksha owned a design firm and was super impressed with Amrita’s work, offering to hire her as a freelancer. Amrita had looked at Sid, who was now stuck between the devil and the deep sea, he couldn’t offend his boss and also needed to appear a progressive male acquiesced then and couldn’t retract later.

Two years ago they had moved to Pune for another of Sid’s projects. He as always under the influence of his father decided to send the kids, Samar and Saksham to hostel at Mayo College, too much of shifting schools is not good for them declared her father-in-law. Her opinion was not even sought. Broken hearted at losing her boys Amrita still did not react. She had become very good at acting.

Amrita travelled once every two months to Mumbai for meetings with Apeksha. She was now earning good money and that was the only reason Sid let her continue, after all she was adding to the family kitty. It was on one of her trips, travelling to Mumbai that the thought of freedom had come to her. Divorce was out of the question, she would lose her boys. Besides, she didn’t want to give up the life style she was accustomed to, the luxuries. Why should she? She’d endured a lot over the years with him.

As the longing for freedom began to take root in her, the idea of doing away with Sid became stronger every day. Till there was nothing else that she could think of.

Then she began to plan.

Reading fictional murder mysteries had given her a lot of ideas to start with. She needed to get away with it. She was smart about it, she secretly bought a laptop and hid it from Sid. She would research at coffee shops and café’s with free Wi-Fi.

It’s interesting what one can find on the internet, if you’re looking.

Step 1. She read, you need a perfect weapon. A knife, she decided easily obtainable. Never interested in Biology in school she now studied the human anatomy for hours, to find its vulnerabilities. Did you know that once the carotid artery is severed a person can bleed to death in twelve seconds? When Sid made love to her she felt the pulse, the throbbing of the blood pulsating inside it and imagined slashing it.

Step 2. Decide the location. At home. While she was supposed to be on a trip to Mumbai. She studied train and bus schedules to and from Mumbai for days. In India no one checks your ID while buying a ticket for a bus journey. But taking a bus dead of the night by a lone woman was fraught with its own risks. She bought clothes from the street sellers outside the railway station, two caps, shirts and pants and two pairs of canvas shoes. Being slim and tall she could easily pass off as an average height man, and makeup did the rest. A successful trail run revealed their condo’s lax security and one flat per floor tied into her plans perfectly.

Step 3. Find an alibi. Amrita for years had not been close to anyone, she didn’t make friends easily since her marriage. Now she needed one. On her next visit to the Mumbai office she struck up a conversation with Shimoli and developed a ritual of her dropping her off to her hotel after work and meeting her for breakfast at the café in the hotel. Always footing the bill.

Step 4. Find another suspect. This proved to be the most difficult. Luck seemed to be with her as that too fell into her lap neatly. Sid had the first falling out with his father over his younger brother, Avinash who had a drinking problem and could not hold down a job. After depleting all their father’s hard earned money on one hair brained business scheme after another, he wanted twenty-five lakhs to invest in a franchise. There were rows upon rows between both the brothers and their father trying to convince Sid, who refused to give money to his wastrel brother.

Step 5. Find a way to link her suspect to the murder. Three months ago on their annual Diwali trip to Jaipur, she collected hair from Avinash’s hairbrush. She also developed a rapport with him and started to talk to him regularly, telling Sid she was trying to make him see the error in his ways.

Step 6. Find a place to trash all the evidence that could point to her. There are literally hundreds of places in India where one can dump things. And if valuable like a laptop, they will conveniently disappear without a trace. She had wiped out its memory and dumped it in a dustbin on the roadside weeks before.

Step 7. Put all the pawns in place. Amrita left for Mumbai and called Avinash from a pay phone. She told him that Sid was beginning to see reason and was ready to talk asking him to reach Pune by Thursday. Sid she knew was a creature of habit, he would arrive late from office having had dinner and by then Avinash, a sponge, would be sozzeled. Disgusted the teetotaler Sid would ask his brother to sleep it off and talk to him in the morning.

Step 8. The final act. All had worked to plan she had entered home in the dead of night and heard Avinash snoring in the guest room. Sid a heavy sleeper, wouldn’t wake up even if the house was burning, was fast asleep. She closed the door and snuck up to him on the bed from her side slashing his neck in one swift swipe with the knife. She watched as the blood drained out of his body and the life out of his eyes. She then dropped Avinash’s hair around the room. She quickly changed into the other set of clothes she had purchased exiting as swiftly as she had entered throwing the blood stained clothes in three different garbage bins at the bus stations on the way and chucking the fresh ones out on a corner of the dirty Mumbai streets took care of the last of the evidence. She was back in her hotel room before dawn broke.

Step 9. The curtain call. All she had to do now was watch the cops put all the pieces of the puzzle together. They wouldn’t find the murder weapon though… she had wiped it and thrown it out of the window on the highway between Pune and Mumbai while the bus had rolled.

“Freedom,” she thought, “Just a matter of a few more days.”