Tag Archives: Harlan Coben

‘The Boy from the Woods,’ by Harlan Coben

I’ve become a fan of Harlan Coben’s novels, especially since he moved out of sports-based mysteries to more domestic stories, in which responsible husbands and fathers go to extraordinary lengths to rescue family members.

I’m not so keen on the turn he’s taken with his latest novel, The Boy from the Woods.

The hero of The Boy from the Woods is a man known only as Wilde. Wilde comes equipped with a fairly implausible back story. As a boy, he was found living in the New Jersey woods, apparently a feral child – although he could speak and read English. No family ever stepped forward to claim him. He entered the military, and then briefly became a private investigator. He still lives in the woods.

The closest thing he has to a family is that of Hester Crimstein (a continuing character who often shows up in Corben’s novels), a tiny but relentless celebrity criminal lawyer. He was particularly close to her youngest son, who died in an auto accident. Now he’s kind of a mentor to her grandson Matthew, who’s in high school.

One day Matthew contacts Wilde and asks for his help. A girl in his class, Naomi Pine, has disappeared. Naomi had been the victim of universal bullying in their school. Matthew is concerned she may have done herself harm.

Wilde’s investigation will lead to unexpected connections with the campaign of a popular presidential candidate, one whom Hester dislikes and fears. This man (a sort of cross between Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh, by way of Nietzsche and Mussolini) has secrets he will go to any length to cover up. However, even when the truth comes out at great cost, it will prove to be not quite the truth.

The Boy from the Woods kept my interest all the way through. However, some aspects of the story never worked for me. The “feral child” thing struck me as unlikely. (From what I’ve read, such children have been found from time to time in the real world, but they were pitiful physical specimens, nothing like the hunk Wilde has grown into). The mystery of his origins is clearly meant to be an ongoing thread in future books (this is obviously the beginning of a series), but it didn’t convince me.

Also – for no reason I can think of, except to score points with feminists – a group of security people consisting entirely of women (except for one transgender) is introduced. And when Wilde merely hints that their boss (a friend of his) might want to find a less dangerous job, since she’s the mother of four small kids, he gets shot down hard for sexism.

Also, the resolution of the story is unsatisfying in multiple ways.

So my final verdict is that The Boy from the Woods is an interesting, engaging (though ultimately frustrating) story, I don’t think I’ll follow the series any further.

Cautions for language and mature themes.

‘Run Away,’ by Harlan Coben

He’d later learn that it was for show, that Ingrid had the same fears and insecurities that plague all of us, that part of the human condition is that all decent people think they are phonies and don’t belong at some point or another.

The same but different. That’s what Harlan Coben’s novels tend to be. All based on themes of the strength of love, and the danger of secrets. But each one very much its own story. That goes also for his new novel, Run Away, which I liked very much.

Simon Greene is a successful financial advisor. He becomes a YouTube sensation briefly, when he attacks a homeless man in New York’s Central Park. What all the people who liked and shared his video, commenting on how evil he was, didn’t know, was that he was trying to help his drug addict daughter, to save her from the homeless man, who had gotten her hooked in the first place.

The daughter gets away. But then Simon and his wife Ingrid get a tip about someone who might be able to help them find her. They end up in a New York crack house, and shots are fired…

And Simon must go on alone to follow faint leads into a convoluted tangle of bizarre criminal conspiracies. Gradually he learns that his daughter’s plight is only peripheral to a much larger crime, and he will be placed on a lengthening list of people marked for murder, due to no fault of their own.

I found Run Away pretty amazing. Not only does Coben trace the familiar ground of family love and loss, and parental sacrifice, but he also creates a pair of unforgettable villains – remorseless killers who happen to be deeply in love, and very sympathetic in their scenes together. That kind of ambivalence shakes me more than distilled evil ever could. And the final revelation of the story was a genuine shocker, one to keep you awake pondering.

I thought the climax of Run Away a little far-fetched, but overall I consider it one of Coben’s best. Highly recommended. As usual with Coben, the profanity is minimal.

‘No Second Chance,’ by Harlan Coben

Conner nodded, pleased by my response. I love him. He breaks my heart and brings me joy in equal measure and at exactly the same time. Twenty-six months old. Two months older than Tara. I watch his development with awe and a longing that could heat a furnace.

Harlan Coben has a winning formula for turning out thrillers that grab the reader. He starts with love – love for lovers, for spouses, and (especially) love for one’s children. Then he asks, “What do we fear the most for these people?” Then he takes that fear and distills it, producing at the end of the coils a spirit that burns like carbolic acid. And he applies that spirit to some innocent, fairly decent protagonist.

That, my friends, is how story-building works.

No Second Chance stars Dr. Marc Seidman, plastic surgeon, who wakes up in a hospital room to learn he’s been in a coma for weeks. He was shot in his own home, and barely survived. His wife, also shot, did not survive.

And his infant daughter Tara vanished like smoke

The police have no leads. Their best theory is that Marc himself engineered his wife’s murder, but that theory makes no sense, and they know it.

Then a ransom note comes to Marc’s wealthy father-in-law. He and Marc agree to involve the police, but they will regret it, because the cops get spotted, the kidnappers get away with the money, and Tara remains lost.

The next time a demand comes, eighteen months later, they leave the cops out. But Marc instead brings in someone from his past, a former FBI agent he dated in college and nearly married. Working with an old lover can be a complication in any endeavor – but this time it might blow up in all their faces.

I like most of Harlan Coben’s books, and I liked No Second Chance more than most. The plot is very complex, but it’s revealed in layers, which kept this old man from getting confused (I like that). There were also some intriguing side characters, like a former child actress turned stone-cold-hitwoman, and a mullet-wearing, NRA-member, redneck who turns out to be good friend to have in a corner (this book is a few years old. I wonder if Coben would have the nerve to include such a character in a novel today).

Highly recommended, with cautions for intensity.

‘Live Wire,’ by Harlan Coben

Live Wire

Another Harlan Coben novel, this time in his Myron Bolitar series. Myron is a sports, literary, and actors’ agent, and for some reason he keeps getting involved in investigating crimes. This one hits closer to home than most.

Live Wire begins with an appeal from “Suzze T,” a tennis star client married to a rock star. Suzze recently gave birth to a baby, and someone posted a comment on her Facebook page, saying that the baby is “not his.” Just a troll, you’d think, but now her husband has disappeared. Can Myron find him and bring him back?

As he investigates the husband’s last known movements, Myron gets a look at a night club closed circuit surveillance recording, and sees a familiar face – his sister-in-law, Kitty, also once a tennis star. Myron hasn’t seen Kitty or his brother in fifteen years. Myron didn’t trust her, and made accusations. The last time he saw his brother, he broke his nose. Now he wants nothing more than to see him again and apologize.

But Kitty is hard to find, and she has secrets. And then somebody dies, and the whole mystery plunges into a tangle of old and toxic secrets, while a ruthless killer lurks in the background. Of course Myron has his own dangerous weapon, in the person of his best friend, Win Lockwood.

Live Wire is in many ways a heartbreaking story, well told. Coben’s usual themes of loyalty and family love are front and center. LW also serves as a launching pad for Coben’s young adult mystery series starring Myron’s nephew Mickey Bolitar. Recommended.

‘Stay Close,’ by Harlan Coben

Stay Close

I reviewed a miniseries created by Harlan Coben a few days back, and so I decided to read a couple more Coben novels. Stay Close was the first. Although it doesn’t follow the usual template for a Coben stand-alone, it had all the familiar elements. And you won’t hear me complaining.

We start with Ray Levine, an Atlantic City photographer at the bottom of his profession. Once a promising photojournalist, a traumatic event several years ago left him adrift. Now he’s – not a paparazzo – but a fake paparazzo. He follows the customers around with a camera, trying to make them feel like big shots on important days in their lives.

And then he gets a glimpse of Megan Pierce. Ray was in love with Megan once, when she was a stripper he knew as “Cassie.” Megan is a suburban wife now, with a pretty good life. Only sometimes she misses the excitement of the old days. And when she makes a discreet visit to a bar where she used to dance, she gets some very dangerous people furiously trying to locate her.

Finally there’s Broome, an old detective trying to solve old mysteries. All of these people have theories about a particular missing persons case. All their theories are wrong. The truth will shock them and put their lives, and those of their loved ones, at risk.

Harlan Coben excels at creating layered, relatable characters. Even the bad guys are understandable, and sometimes almost sympathetic. Except for a couple characters in this book who seemed over the top to me. A sociopathic couple who work as a hit team, and are apparently Mormon missionaries (or something similar) in their off hours. I found them a little hard to swallow.

But the book was exciting – in fact it was one of those I had to take in small doses, because of the constant peril to innocent people – and the conclusion was satisfying. Recommended with the usual cautions.

Netflix Review: ‘Safe’


Back in 2006, a French movie appeared, based on Harlan Coben’s novel Tell No One. I’ve seen it on Netflix. It’s a pretty good thriller. Coben says he agreed to sell the rights to the French company rather than taking an American offer, because the filmmakers understood the story – that it’s primarily a love story, not a mystery.

Although he takes his material overseas again (this time to England) for the miniseries Safe, available for viewing now on Netflix, I think it’s not as successful as the French movie. But it’s a pretty fair entertainment.

In spite of the uprooted location, Safe is a very recognizable Coben story. You’ve got a secure (in this case gated) upper middle-class suburban community, where neighbors are friends and everybody knows everybody’s business (or thinks they do). You’ve got a family friend who tells some of the kids that if they ever need a designated driver, call him night or day – no questions, no snitching to the parents. You’ve got a teenagers’ party that gets out of hand – a boy drowns. Then a girl disappears. Then the clues lead back to very old, buried secrets.

American actor Michael C. Hall plays Dr. Tom Delaney, widowed father of the missing girl. (His English accent sounds OK to me, but apparently the actual English have laughed at it.) His relationship with his daughter Jenny (Amy James-Kelly) has been strained, since her mother’s death from cancer. He desperately tries to trace Jenny’s movements on the night of the party, assisted by his best friend, a gay doctor, and his girlfriend, a police detective. Clues lead to drug dealing, concealment of a body, and a guilty secret shared by members of the close-knit community.

I found the solution, and the Big Surprise that followed it, a little improbable and forced. However, the series as a whole was compelling and I enjoyed it. Cautions for mature themes and a few obscenities.

‘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.