Tag Archives: Harlan Coben

‘Don’t Let Go,’ by Harlan Coben

Don't Let Go

Harlan Coben is one of the best of our thriller writers. Instead of voyeuristic violence and obscenity, Coben specializes in profound moral dilemmas, psychological depth, and generally clean prose. I’m a fan. His latest, Don’t Let Go, is OK, but I don’t consider it one of his best.

Napoleon “Nap” Dumas is a policeman in a New Jersey suburb. He has a minor, unofficial sideline in beating up guys who seriously hurt women and can’t be touched by the law. He’s carrying a lot of suppressed anger, going back to one terrible night in his senior year in high school, when his twin brother and his girlfriend were killed in an accident, and his own girlfriend disappeared without a goodbye.

Now there’s been a murder in the town where he lives. The victim was a fellow cop, killed during a traffic stop. But inside the stopped car a set of fingerprints are found – the fingerprints of Maura, Nap’s long-lost girlfriend.

The old case is opened, and Nap is about to learn that many shocking things were covered up that awful night when his brother died. The cover-ups were not only the work of a shadowy government agency, but of some of his best, most trusted friends.

I was a little disappointed with Don’t Let Go. I thought that author Coben fell into some storyteller’s tropes unworthy of his talent. And I thought the final resolution overly complex and not very plausible.

But it kept my interest all through, and was moving in places. You could do worse.

‘Darkest Fear,’ by Harlan Coben

Darkest Fear

Her blue-black hair fell in big, loose curls, like thermal fax paper fresh out of the machine.

This is more like it.

I positively reviewed Harlan Coben’s latest Myron Bolitar novel, Home, a few days back. My only real quibble with the book was that the author seemed to be taking particular pains to virtue-signal – to demonstrate very obviously his politically acceptable views on gay marriage and cultural appropriation.

This earlier novel, Darkest Fear, avoids most of that. It’s just a fun mystery/thriller.

This time out, Myron is contacted by an old girlfriend, to whom he has no desire to talk. Not only did she break his heart years ago, but she broke it in favor of the guy who was responsible for the knee injury that ended Myron’s basketball career before it started. But now she insists on seeing him. She has a teenaged son who suffers from a fatal bone marrow disease. Only a marrow transplant can save him. One genetic match has been found in this country, but that person has inexplicably dropped off the grid.

Oh, and one further thing – Myron is actually the boy’s natural father.

Myron picks up the quest, which leads to a wealthy and secretive family, and to a series of unsolved serial killings. Several people may be the real killer – and the killer may even be the donor.

Darkest Fear is a fun story, full of excitement, humor, and heart. I enjoyed it immensely. Language is relatively mild, and adult situations not too extreme.

‘Home,’ by Harlan Coben

Home, Coben

Part way through my reading of Home, Harlan Coben’s latest Myron Bolitar novel, I remembered that I had sworn off these books not too long ago. It’s not that Coben isn’t a superior storyteller. And it’s not that he doesn’t offer the kind of character insight and humanity that I crave from an author. I just felt he’d gotten too PC for my taste. But I carried on, having purchased the book, and enjoying the story. Home is a good novel, but marred (for me, probably not for most readers) by progressive elements.

In this outing, we start with Win Lockhart, Myron’s wealthy, effete-but-deadly, longtime friend. Win has dropped out of sight to hunt for a missing person, his sister’s kidnapped son, gone ten years. His search has brought him to London, where he locates a boy who looks to him like his nephew’s friend, also kidnapped on the same occasion. In approaching the boy, he encounters three thugs, whom he easily dispatches. But the boy takes fright and runs away. That’s when Win calls Myron, who drops everything and flies to London to help in the search.

They encounter criminals and pimps in their investigation, but most of all they encounter lies. The lies are old, and deeply buried, and the true secrets lie not in London, but close to home. Old wounds are opened, and old betrayals revealed. The final resolution of the story is remarkable for its grace – but there’s a less inspirational anticlimax.

Home is a very good book. Author Coben possesses deep empathy for the human situation, drawing the reader in and making us care. My problem is mainly with two characters, Esperanza and Big Cindy, who are a married lesbian couple. I suspect they were originally added to the cast of the books for purposes of comic relief. But changing times have persuaded the author to treat them with increasing earnest seriousness. For me, this is a conformist and disappointing element in stories this good and well-grounded in human nature. Various hints suggest that Coben himself does not entirely buy into modern ideas about gender and gender roles, but he nevertheless genuflects to all the prescribed altars, in this and other matters.

Other than that, highly recommended. Coben doesn’t use much bad language, and the sex and violence are relatively restrained.

‘The Innocent,’ by Harlan Coben

The Innocent, Harlan Coben

Olivia thought again about how the abused always take the path of self-destruction. They simply could not stop themselves. They take it no matter what the consequences, no matter what the danger. Or maybe, as in her case, they take it for the opposite reason – because no matter how much life has tried to beat them down, they cannot let go of hope.

Another Harlan Coben book in my current little Coben binge. I didn’t love this one, The Innocent, quite as much as I loved Caught, which I reviewed a couple inches down the page. But it’s still a superior book.

Matt Hunter is an ex-con who works as a paralegal. He served a sentence for manslaughter. He’s married to a beautiful woman, Olivia, and they’re deeply in love with each other. She’s just learned she’s pregnant.

And their life is a lie. Olivia isn’t who she says she is.

A nun in a nearby Catholic school is murdered in her room. Police find phone records linking her to Matt’s family. Olivia goes away on a “business trip,” and Matt gets a video on his cell phone, showing her in a bedroom with another man.

Matt sets about finding out the truth – and he refuses to believe Olivia has betrayed him.

The plot is convoluted. The characters are numerous and textured, sometimes surprising us as is Cobin’s style (and I like that). We visit the sordid world of “exotic” dancing, which is not pretty. But the conclusion moved me as much as that of any novel I’ve read in a while.

Recommended. Cautions for violence (but not explicit), sexual situations (also not explicit), and only mild profanity.

‘Caught,’ by Harlan Coben

Walker turned away because he didn’t want to admit that maybe Stanton had a point. You make so many calls in life that you don’t want to make – and you want those calls to be easy. You want to put people in neat categories, make them monsters or angels, but it almost never works that way. You work in the gray and frankly that kinda sucks. The extremes are so much easier.

During my Long March through the educational institution, I find that I have fallen behind in my Harlan Coben reading. There was a brand new book (I reviewed that the other day), plus two more I hadn’t noticed. This was good news – it meant a reading feast of extremely high quality.

Caught is, I think, my favorite to date of all Coben’s novels. The main character is Wendy Tyne, a television news reporter. She’s a young widow, and the mother of a teenage son. She does a feature where she lures child predators through online contacts, and then exposes them on video. That was how she “caught” Dan Mercer – a youth counselor whom everyone respected, and many loved – including the kids he worked with. Even Dan’s ex-wife staunchly defends him.

Then he gets tied to the disappearance of a local teenaged girl, and clues start pointing in all kinds of directions, and Wendy discovers a long-ago crime coverup, and begins to question her own judgment. Then a threat appears to her own family.

Caught is a complex story with complex characters. Not for Coben the simple stereotypes a lesser writer would have offered. The best characters can make terrible mistakes, and the worst have moments of goodness. I was particularly pleased by Wendy’s father, who rides a motorcycle and belongs to the NRA and is a fine, loving, wise man.

Harlan Coben, as far as I can figure out, is Jewish. But the major theme of this book is forgiveness, and the way he handles the subject will be edifying to any Christian.

Highly recommended. The language is mild by thriller standards. There’s no on-screen sex, and the violence is minimal, though some crime descriptions can be harrowing.

‘Fool Me Once,’ by Harlan Coben

Wow. What a book. Harlan Coben is one of the best thriller writers around, but Fool Me Once is unlike anything he’s written before.

I might have been inclined to pass this one over, because it involves a woman in combat, a subject that troubles me. But I trust Coben, so I went ahead and read it, and I’m glad I did. You could make an argument that the story supports my views, but I doubt that’s what Coben had in mind. Whatever his intentions, he’s written a fine, taut, explosive story.

Maya Stern Burkett is a veteran helicopter pilot from the Middle East war. She was briefly famous when video of her killing civilians during a rescue mission was leaked by a whistleblower web site. That ended her military career. Now she’s an aviation instructor. Some people say that death follows her, and it seems as if it might be true. Her sister was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered while she was overseas, and now her husband, Joe Burkett, scion of a rich and powerful family and the father of her two-year-old daughter, has been murdered.

After the funeral, Maya’s sister-in-law gives her an unexpected gift – a nanny camera. Maya trusts her nanny, and doesn’t understand the gift, but she uses it… and one day she sees something that can’t possibly be real on its daily recording. Maya starts asking questions and begins to learn that very little in her world is what it seems to be. Her life, and her daughter’s, may be at stake.

Coben does a splendid job of describing the world of a soldier dealing with PTSD. And I don’t often say that a book’s ending shocks me, but this one did. It worked, though, and I won’t soon forget it.

Highly recommended. No sex, language fairly mild (as with all Coben’s books), and the violence isn’t overwhelming.

‘Missing You,’ by Harlan Coben

First of all, let me state at the outset the important fact that Missing You by Harlan Coben is an exceedingly good novel. One of his best, I’d say, and that’s no mean praise.

I have to say that because I’m going to do some ideological quibbling at the end.

Anyway, the main character of Missing You is Kat Donovan, a New York City police detective who very quickly finds herself tugged in several directions by a number of worries and crises.

First of all, a friend has signed her up for an online dating service. Looking through possible matches, she discovers a photograph of the fiancé who abandoned her eighteen years before. She’s never gotten over him. Everything was going fine, they were planning a life together, and then one day he was gone without a word. Now here he is, describing himself as a widower with one child. And when she sends him a message, he doesn’t seem to remember her. Continue reading ‘Missing You,’ by Harlan Coben

‘The Stranger,’ by Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben is a remarkable writer of thrillers. It has been noted that he avoids profanity in his dialogue, and his use of violence is pretty restrained. Nevertheless he is capable of producing books as shocking as any you will ever read, in their own way. The Stranger is Hitchcockian in its portrayal of a very ordinary man thrust into a world of lies and mortal danger, and raises societal and existential questions as well.

Adam Price is no man of action. An easygoing type, he’s a successful eminent domain lawyer, living in a prosperous New Jersey suburb. He loves his beautiful wife and his two teenage sons. He’s “living the dream,” as one of his friends likes to say.

But, as the author is careful to emphasize, “dream” is precisely the word for their lives. Their security is insecure, their happiness fragile. Adam learns this first hand when a stranger sidles up to him after a youth lacrosse league meeting at the local American Legion, and tells him, “You didn’t have to stay with her.” Then he gives him information to prove that his wife has lied to him about something that matters deeply in their relationship.

It’s not just him who’s receiving such messages, Adam learns in time. There are people who search the internet, ferreting out secrets and blackmailing people, self-righteously believing they’re fighting the good fight against hypocrisy.

And they’re not even the worst ones….

Besides questioning our illusions of security and secrecy in the modern world, The Stranger also raises interesting questions about what they call “hacktivism” nowadays. This book is as relevant as anything you’ll read this year.

It drew me in. It fascinated me. It broke my heart. Highly recommended.

Fade Away, by Harlan Coben

Myron Bolitar, Harlan Coben’s sports agent mystery hero, is primarily a sports agent and (supposedly secretly) a former FBI agent. Once a top NBA draft pick, almost guaranteed a highly paid career and all the perks, he got injured in a pre-season game and never had the chance to play in a major league game.

But in Fade Away, he is to get his chance. A team owner who is also an old friend asks him to join his team temporarily – not actually to play (much), but to sit on the bench, schmooze with the players, and try to figure out what happened to Greg Downing, one of the stars, who has disappeared.

Myron agrees and begins an investigation that will lead to threats and further murder, and will uncover secrets involving drugs, old 1970s radicals and a betrayal in his own life. The plot gets pretty complicated.

But the great joy of this book – even for someone as apathetic toward sports as me – is Myron’s personal character arc. Though established in his new career, a competent, successful, and even dangerous man, once he’s on the basketball court it’s (emotionally) as if he were a kid again. The passion, the love of the game, the competitive instinct, are all back in full force, and his inevitable disappointment is all the crueler for it. This gave the book a genuine poignancy that made it moving indeed, simply as a piece of literature.

As usual with Coben, there are adult themes, but they’re handled in a fairly civilized manner. Highly recommended.

Play Dead, by Harlan Coben

Perhaps with a little embarrassment, author Harlan Coben prefaces this new edition of his first novel with “A Note From the Author.” He begins the note, “Okay, if this is the first book of mine you’re going to try, stop now. Return it. Grab another. It’s okay. I’ll wait.”

Words in season. I like Coben’s books very much, but Play Dead is a classic example of that deadly subgenre, the badly overwritten first novel. One of the many temptations to which unproven authors fall prey is the one to tell the reader too much, to put everything into the book. Clearly, on the evidence of his later work, Coben has learned a lot in the intervening years. But Play Dead (he says in his Note that he left it as it stands because he considers it dishonest to re-write an earlier book) is too long, too verbose, and awkward. It’s like a teenager who’s outgrown his muscles, impressive in his height, but bad in his coordination. Continue reading Play Dead, by Harlan Coben

No Second Chance, by Harlan Coben

I like Harlan Coben better with each novel of his I read. I found No Second Chance a superior thriller, dispensing big doses of those truths of the heart that mean so much to me in a story.

Dr. Marc Seidman was a successful plastic surgeon (the kind who repairs cleft palates for Third World children) when he was shot and nearly killed in his home. He has no memory of his attacker. All he knows is that when he regained consciousness in the hospital, his wife was dead (also from a gunshot wound) and their six-month-old daughter Tara had vanished without a trace.

The police have nothing. Marc himself is a suspect, but only under one of many scenarios, all of them unsatisfactory.

Then there’s a ransom call. He’s to bring a sum of money to a certain location, and not to involve the police. “There will be no second chance.”

In consultation with his wealthy father-in-law, who provides the cash, he decides to bring the police in. The result is disastrous. The money is taken, but Tara is not returned. The kidnappers call to say that’s because they called the cops.

Marc clings to the dream that Tara is alive somewhere. He begins an investigation of his own, bringing in a friend from the past, a former girlfriend recently fired by the FBI.

The plot of this book is extremely convoluted, and (to be honest) objectively unlikely. But the author’s strength is in his examination of the passions, loves, fears and hopes that drive the characters to make their different choices. The story has emotional logic, and it kept me turning the pages, anguishing with the protagonist.

Highly recommended.

Long Lost, by Harlan Coben

Long Lost

I didn’t much care for the first Harlan Coben book I read, and it was part of the Myron Bolitar series. But Coben—and the series—have been growing on me, and I liked Long Lost

very much.

Coben, apparently, has decided to take the series (which has been pretty conventional mysteries up to now) in a new direction—to international thrillers. It would seem a stretch to make a sports agent (that’s Bolitar’s profession) a spy chaser, but Coben accomplishes it pretty deftly (I thought), by the wisest course possible for a writer. Instead of adding novel elements to the formula, he takes an underutilized character he’s already established, and gives her a back story that rears its ugly head to take her (and our hero) into fresh territory. Continue reading Long Lost, by Harlan Coben

Tell No One, by Harlan Coben

Notice of personal appearance: I’ll be at the Norway Day celebration in Minnehaha Park, Minneapolis, with the Vikings on Sunday, from about 11:00 to 4:00 or so. They say the weather will be nice.

I appreciated Gone for Good so much
that I immediately launched into reading Tell No One, which Harlan Coben wrote just before it. I suppose it was inevitable that I’d be a little let down. There’s nothing at all wrong with Tell No One. It’s a gripping, fast-paced thriller with engaging characters and plenty of surprises. But for some reason (perhaps just a subjective identification with one main character over another), I didn’t like it quite as much.

There are actually a lot of similarities in the set-ups of both stories. Gone for Good’s hero was a gentle do-gooder, a volunteer who works with the homeless, whose girlfriend disappears and who soon comes under the suspicion of federal investigators. In Tell No One, the hero is Dr. David Beck, a young physician who has voluntarily chosen to work with charity cases in Manhattan. Three years ago, he was gravely injured when his wife, Elizabeth, was abducted and murdered by a serial killer. But now he starts getting e-mail messages that seem to be coming from Elizabeth herself. Meanwhile, the FBI has suddenly decided that he must have murdered Elizabeth, and they’ve got a warrant for his arrest. But David has an appointment to meet with Elizabeth—or whoever’s pretending to be her—this afternoon, and there’s no way he’s going to be sitting in a cell when that happens. So he runs.

Very good story. I’ve got no complaints. The language is not bad for the genre; the violence (some of it quite horrifying) is mostly off camera. There is a lesbian couple with a child who are highly sympathetic characters, so you might (or might not) want to be warned of that.

I liked it, and I’ve got no legitimate complaint.

Gone For Good, by Harlan Coben

Oh my goodness, Gone For Good is a splendid novel.

I hate to blaspheme Andrew Klavan by calling it the best suspense novel I’ve ever read, but I’ll go so far as to say I’ve never read a better one.

Will Klein, the hero and narrator, is a do-gooder. He works in New York City for Covenant House a (real-life) humanitarian organization that tries to reach out to street kids and (when they’re lucky) help a few of them escape that world before they’re irreparably damaged (which doesn’t take long).

He lives with his girlfriend, Sheila. She’s his “soul-mate,” and he’s planning to propose soon. The only reason he put it off was because his mother died of cancer recently, and life got complicated.

It didn’t help that, shortly before her death, his mother told him his older brother Ken was still alive. Obviously she was just raving.

Ken had been Will’s hero as a boy, up until the day his girlfriend (Will’s former girlfriend) was found murdered, and Ken disappeared. The official assumption has been that Ken killed her and ran.

Believing his brother innocent, Will has always assumed he was also murdered, his body never found.

Then Sheila receives a mysterious phone call, leaves a note saying, “Love you always,” and vanishes completely.

Will has always been a passive guy (I identified with him heavily). But now, the weight of personal loss becomes too heavy to endure, and he sets out (with the help of his friend “Squares,” a millionaire yoga guru) to find the woman he loves. Quickly he learns that it has something to do with his brother’s disappearance. And we are given just enough glimpses (in Hitchcockian fashion) of the plans and deliberations of his enemies to understood the extreme danger he’s walking into. Very powerful, very ruthless people are interested in the whereabouts of Ken Klein. But even this information leaves plenty of surprises along the way. The twists come relentlessly, right up to a jaw-dropping revelation at the end.

What I loved about Gone For Good was that the plot and the surprises all rose from believable, complex characters. Coben understands Solzhenyitsin’s dictum that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. Every character in this book is flawed, but also well-meaning (by his own lights). The wide disparity between the things that individuals consider right and necessary is almost a part of the background scenery, like the Grand Canyon.

Outstanding. Recommended highly for adults.