Tag Archives: thriller

‘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.

Klavan and the Imp of the Perverse

Today, Andrew Klavan announced the release of his new young adult thriller, Nightmare City. In an interesting post on his approach to writing for that market, he makes some cogent points:

Criticize the selling of self-destructive behavior to the young and you’re “puritanical,” or “slut-shaming,” or being “unrealistic about the modern world.” But in fact, this effort to normalize the degraded is itself perverse in the extreme. It’s the incarnation of that imp within who urges us to do ill to what we love the best: ourselves and our children. The people who peddle this trash curse those who dare to criticize them so loudly precisely because they know they are doing wrong and can’t stop themselves. Believe me: the person who accuses you of “slut-shaming,” is herself deeply ashamed.

The term “The Imp of the Perverse” is a reference to story by Poe.

The Severance Kill, by Tim Stevens

I reviewed a previous novel by Tim Stevens, Ratcatcher, a while back. I liked it, but thought it went a little over the top, demanding the kind of suspension of disbelief that’s better suited to action movies. Severance Kill dials the improbabilities back a little while remaining a fast, tense, wall-to-wall action story.

Martin Calvary works for a top-secret English intelligence organization called the Chapel (and yes, I’m sure the names are significant). The Chapel specializes in assassinations, deniable by the government. Martin joined up after a military stint in Bosnia, where he spared someone’s life with horrific consequences. For a time he was content to kill the bad guys good and dead.

But recently he’s grown weary of the exercise. Perhaps they deserve to lose their lives, but does he have the right to take them?

So he quits. Only his boss has incriminating evidence on him. He wants one more job out of him. There’s an English traitor, a defector to the old Soviet Union. It’s been decided he has to die. If Martin will just do this one, he can walk away free.

Martin doesn’t trust his handler, but he goes to Prague to do the job. Before long he’s tangling with Russian spies, Czech mobsters, and a group of naïve young activists. Martin gets attacked repeatedly, captured, and tortured, gradually figuring out he’s been lied to, and setting a trap of his own.

Severance Kill is not for the squeamish. There’s lots of violence – the scenes of Martin’s torture are particularly intense. As in Ratcatcher, one wonders how the hero can continue functioning physically, but it’s less of a stretch this time out. The plot doesn’t bear close analysis, but taken as an action romp the book works very well indeed. The characters are especially good. Recommended for those who like this sort of thing (I do). Cautions for the aforementioned violence, some sex, and language.

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.

Killer in the Wind, by Andrew Klavan

See, I’d seen that look before. That wrinkled nose, that laughing sparkle in the eyes. In the movies, evil guys laugh out loud. Bwa-ha-ha. Or they chuckle suavely, swirling their drinks in their glasses. But this is the real deal, the real look most monsters have. A sort of cute, dainty, delicate recoil from speaking the thing out loud. The forbidden joke of it.

Are we being naughty now?

I know you’re used to seeing me review Andrew Klavan’s books, and I know you’ve come to expect me to praise each one to the skies. Nevertheless, I want you to believe me when I say that it’s been a long time since I actually stayed up late in bed with a book, unable to put it down except by a strong effort of the will.

Killer in the Wind is one of the most compelling thrillers I’ve ever read.

The hero, Dan Champion, is a former commando, a former New York City police detective, and a certified hero. Now he’s part of the police force in a small town in downstate New York. He’s dating a local waitress, a nice woman whose love he’d like to return. But he can’t commit. He can’t commit for a reason he himself knows is crazy. Three years ago, in the course of an undercover investigation, he had a hallucination under the influence of drugs. In the hallucination he encountered a woman named Samantha, whom he can’t get over. Even though he knows for a fact that she doesn’t exist.

Except that one day Samantha shows up in the flesh. She says one thing to him – “They’re coming after us” – before disappearing again.

Is this a real-world mystery, or a supernatural thriller? The borderline seems vague sometimes, and that’s no accident. Klavan likes to explore those boundaries. Some of the reviews on Amazon suggest that certain readers don’t get this. They take the uncertainty as over-the-top storytelling. But it’s not. It’s the author’s way of exploring the wonder of life itself – that all of us are living in an improbable world, a world impossible to explain by purely rational methods. For good and evil.

My own reaction to Killer in the Wind may not be yours. I’m pretty sure I was emotionally affected by the way it dealt with areas of human evil of which I have some personal experience.

But even if that’s the case, I can still recommend Killer in the Wind without reservation. It’s a tight, tense, deeply moving thriller with characters as real as your own family.

Cautions for rough language, sex, and violence.

The Scarred Man, by Andrew Klavan

I’ve actually reviewed Andrew Klavan’s novel The Scarred Man (written under the pseudonym Keith Peterson, and recently released as an e-book by Mysterious Press) before on this blog. But I want to direct your attention to these books, and I re-read it recently, so it can’t hurt to discuss it again.

Mike North, the hero and narrator, is a young news reporter in New York City, and a very good one (this was written back before the internet holed the newspapers at the waterline). He is assistant to a legendary newsman named McGill, who asks Mike to come along upstate with him to spend Christmas at his home, since he (Mike) has no family. Mike agrees, and while there he meets McGill’s daughter Susannah, and falls so deeply and suddenly in love that everyone in the room can read it on his face. Susanna returns his feelings and they get along very well (including a sexual encounter under the Christmas tree while everybody else is sleeping) until somebody suggests telling ghost stories. Mike, on an impulse, makes up a story off the top of his head—about a sinister man with a scarred face, who dogs another man’s steps.

Suddenly Susannah is screaming, “Stop it! What are you doing to me?” She flees to her room, and the next morning she’s gone back to school.

It takes a few weeks before Mike realizes he has to go up to Susannah’s college and talk to her.

And as he pulls into the entrance to her college, he sees the scarred man from his story in his headlights.

I think this is one of the best set-ups for a thriller I’ve ever read. What’s especially great is that The Scarred Man is not a supernatural story. Everything that happens has a rational explanation. And it’s up to Mike and Susannah to figure it out, because the mystery involves the upcoming execution of a man who may not deserve to die. And the Scarred Man is still out there, dogging their steps, carrying the answers to their personal mysteries – which they may or may not want to learn.

On my second reading, I didn’t think the balance of the book was quite as great as the set-up, but it would be very hard for any story to meet that standard. Klavan fans who know him best from his current books should be warned that this is the early, liberal Klavan. He doesn’t slander conservatives, but the cultural insularity of his background shows through, especially in the addition of a character whom we are supposed to believe is a Christian fundamentalist preacher, even though his speech is peppered with obscenities. This is a fundamentalist preacher as imagined by a New Yorker who’s never actually met one. Attitudes toward sex may also offend some readers.

But it’s a great story, and one that will stick with you. Highly recommended.

Crazy Dangerous, by Andrew Klavan

Andrew Klavan has taken a small (but worthwhile) detour in his writing career over the last few years, producing top-notch thrillers aimed at the Young Adult audience, published by Christian publisher Thomas Nelson. His previous four books, The Homelanders series, brought the Christian YA field to a whole new level. All in all, I think the stand-alone novel Crazy Dangerous is even better.

One improvement is the narrator/hero of Crazy Dangerous, Sam Hopkins. Unlike Charlie West, the hero of the Homelanders books, Sam is not an adolescent James Bond, outstanding at everything he does and equipped with a black belt. Sam will be far easier for most kids to identify with. He’s a smallish, not very popular, not academically outstanding, not very athletic teenager, struggling with the challenges of being a preacher’s kid in a small town in upstate New York. When he receives an odd offer of “friendship” from three of the shadiest kids in his school, he gets involved with them, just to escape the public expectations that face every PK.

But the situation changes when his new “friends” make an attack on Jennifer, a vulnerable classmate with mental problems. Rescuing Jennifer, and paying the price for it, seems to be the end of Sam’s adventure, but it’s only the beginning. Because Jennifer’s mysterious, oddly articulated visions of impending death and disaster have more truth in them than anyone guesses, and everyone in Sam’s world is not what they seem. But the lesson Sam is learning—“Do right. Fear nothing”—steers him through a variety of strange paths to the right decisions in a big, explosive story climax.

Great story. Great values. I found it interesting that Sam’s pastor father, though a good dad and a wise man, seems to be a liberal Christian, and therefore blind to some truths that might have helped his son. That was an intriguing—and narratively useful—nuance.

The plot was weak at one point, I thought, where Sam made a braver choice than I thought consistent with his character. But that might be just a coward’s reaction to reading about a better person than himself. It certainly won’t bother young readers, who will consume this book like nacho chips and shake the bag for more.

Highly recommended for teens and up. Great for adults too. Intense situations, but no foul language.

The Final Hour, by Andrew Klavan

I’ll get out, I told myself. Rose’ll get me out. Two months, maybe three. I just need courage. I just have to survive.

That’s what I told myself.

But I was way wrong.

Andrew Klavan has completely realized his purpose in writing The Final Hour, the fourth and last in his The Homelanders young adult action series. He’s crafted a moral story that’s so exciting teenage boys will put off going back to their video games until they’ve finished it.

Is it over the top? Unquestionably. Poor Charlie West, the hero, caroms from one deathly peril to another, chapter after chapter. It’s like an Indiana Jones movie, except that Indie wouldn’t be able to keep up Charlie’s pace.

If you’ve been following the series, or just my reviews, you’ll know that the first book, The Last Thing I Remember, opened with Charlie waking up bound to a chair in a strange room, with terrorists outside the door discussing how much further to torture him. Since then he’s escaped and learned that (during a year that he’s forgotten completely) he’s been arrested and convicted of the murder of a high school friend. He’s escaped from custody since then, and has been on the run—gradually learning bits and pieces about the terrorists’ plot.

At the start of The Final Hour he’s in custody again, an inmate in a federal prison. The radical Muslim prisoners hate him for opposing terrorists, and try to kill him. He’s rescued by Nazi skinheads who want something from him, but he doesn’t want to have anything to do with them either. And oh yes, the corrupt prison guards have it in for him too.

Through it all, Charlie teaches lessons in Christian decency and patriotism, not by talking about those things, or even thinking about them much, but through practicing them—living out the lessons he’s learned from his parents and his karate teacher, Mike.

Which prepares him for his improbable but edge-of-your seat final confrontation with the murderous Homelanders.

Well done, Andrew Klavan.

Suitable (and highly recommended) for teens and up.

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.

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. Continue reading The Woods, by Harlan Coben

Hold Tight, by Harlan Coben

Hold Tight is a mystery. It’s also a thriller and a family drama. It’s not at all like the kind of mystery/thriller I usually read, but it grabbed me almost painfully.

I read and reviewed one Coben novel a while back, and felt ambivalent about it. I decided to try another because I’d read an interesting thing about Coben. He’s made it a point to write his most recent books without using major obscenities. No “f” words. No “sh” words. I can’t find anything that says he has any particular religious devotion; he just seems to be concerned about raising the level of discourse. Which earned my respect, and prompted me to give him another try.

Hold Tight
is about families in a suburban community—how they love each other and irritate each other, and (most importantly) mistrust each other and keep secrets. Continue reading Hold Tight, by Harlan Coben