The Woods, by Harlan Coben

Paul Copeland, the hero of The Woods, is a county prosecutor in New Jersey. He is currently handling a case which looks very reminiscent of the Duke lacrosse team rape case a few years back (but which, he insists in his Afterword, is in no way connected. He came up with the idea before the Duke case happened. Such things do occur).

Paul has had a rough time in life. He’s the son of Russian immigrants who suffered greatly under Soviet rule. His father died recently. His wife died of cancer a few years ago. His mother disappeared years back, and never made contact again.

But worst of all was what happened one terrible night twenty years ago. He was a camp counselor, charged with security that night, but he went off with his girlfriend to make out instead. While they were having sex, four campers were murdered, though only two bodies were ever found in the deep woods. One of the missing was his own sister.

The case isn’t a mystery, as far as anyone knows. Another camper also disappeared that night, and he was later arrested for a string of serial murders.

Then one day a pair of New York policemen ask Paul to come with them to identify the body of a murdered man, who was found with Paul’s name in his clothing. Paul doesn’t recognize him at first, but then does—by a distinctive scar on his arm.

It’s one of the assumed murder victims from the summer camp, one of the two whose body was never found twenty years ago.

But why do the man’s parents then refuse to identify him, telling a plain lie about which arm had the scar (Paul can prove this from an old photo)?

And why was the man in possession Paul’s name?

And if this man is alive, could Paul’s sister be alive as well? And if so, why hasn’t she ever made contact?

There are people who know the answers, and almost uniformly they tell him the same thing—“You’re better off not knowing.”

But Paul Copeland is not a man to be intimidated or put off. He will get the answers, regardless of the cost, to himself or others. And he will, at the same time, prosecute his rape case, in spite of a vicious campaign of dirty tricks paid for by the defendants’ parents.

He will also re-connect with the old girlfriend, a damaged woman with whom he falls immediately and totally in love again.

The result is a tragic, moving, troubling story, a complicated net of interlocking mysteries. The book raises a multitude of difficult moral questions for which there are no easy answers.

I’m getting to like Coben more with each book of his I read. The politics are liberal, yet there’s some healthy skepticism here and there, too. And the characters who’d get the standard stereotype treatment with many authors—the bigoted, white male cop on the one side, the mellow old hippie on the other, surprise us with unexpected character facets.

This book does suffer a bit from what I call “CSI Disease”—an unlikely percentage of beautiful women working in law enforcement and ancillary services—but that’s not a problem I find unendurable.

The Woods involves very intense scenes, but as usual with Coben, the language, at least, is fairly mild. It left me sad, but I was glad I read it.

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