More about Harlan Coben Than Is Strictly Necessary
Posted by: Keir Graff
Three years ago, I made a public vow (well, it appeared on this blog, anyway) to read a book by Harlan Coben. I had read a profile of him in the Atlantic (“Paperback Writer,” by Eric Konigsberg) that, while not damning him as some have damned James Patterson, did portray Coben as being a guy who cared as much about the merchandising of his books as he did about writing them: a portrait of the author as businessman. But, not having read any of his books, I didn’t want to write him off and so I vowed to read one of them to see if his writing matched my impression of him.
I worried a little bit that it sounded like a snobbish thing to do, as though I am a monocled, ascot-wearing lover of Great Literature who, in an effort to find ground with the common people, has deigned to read a “murder mystery.” So let me just say, for those of you who don’t know me, that I am an enthusiastic consumer of crime fiction, and that I love culture both high and low. But I have always been a bit suspicious of certain mass-market authors because I really, really do care about the craft of writing and the experience of reading. I forgive bad writing, sometimes, if the voice is original and the writer’s passion is evident. But I also demand that authors do their best, and that they honor the time and money of the reader by writing the best book they are capable of writing. (Or, in the case of James Patterson, that they publish the best book their coauthors are capable of writing.) But the Atlantic‘s description of Coben as a deadline surfer who waits until the last minute every year before churning out his latest bestseller didn’t sit right with me and so I had to see for myself.
(And let me just cover my behind by stating that Booklist has reviewed Coben very well indeed at times.)
So I promptly bought a copy of The Woods (see? pretty nice review) and put it on top of my bedside table. But I had reviewing deadlines, so it slipped to the lower shelf, then to another part of the room, and then I lost track of it entirely. But, from then until now, whether at bookstores or airport newsstands, when my eye chanced across a Coben, I always remembered my promise to read one. And when our trusted reviewer Connie Fletcher gave this year’s Caught a star, I thought that I had really better get around to it–but, still, I always had something more urgent to read.
Until, that is, I finished a book (Peter Rabe’s The Silent Wall) in the Minneapolis airport and had nothing to read for the flight home to Chicago. I jogged to the nearest bookstore, bought a copy of Hold Tight, and started reading as soon as the plane took off. I’m not a particularly fast reader, but I read about 100 pages during the 50 or so minutes we were in the air. The story is about two parents’ decision to put spying software on the computer of their 16-year-old son, an athletic and outgoing kid who has, following the suicide of his best friend, become moody, withdrawn, and hard to understand. Then they intercept a strange and ominous message, then their son disappears, and then the father follows him into a confusing and dangerous underworld of goth teens that hangs out at an all-ages nightclub. (Kind of reminds me of the old Quincy episode where the medical examiner infiltrates the world of punk rock, but I guess I’m showing my age.)
Meanwhile a serial killer is abducting, torturing, and murdering helpless suburban women–he seems to have his reasons, but what are they? A tough but disliked woman investigator tracks the killer as the reader wonders how this story can possibly intersect with the missing teen. And, by the way, the teen’s dad is a doctor who faces a tough ethical choice about a patient who happens to be a neighbor. And the teen’s mom is a lawyer forced to choose between career and family: her boss refuses to let her take time off to search for her missing kid.
Reading even this skeletal account of the plot, it’s clear that much of Coben’s commercial genius lies in his choice of subject matter. Which parents don’t worry about how much freedom and space they should allow their mopey and uncommunicative teenagers? Which parents don’t struggle to balance career and family? And putting middle-class women in danger from random abductions–well, have I mentioned lately that middle-class women are the biggest consumers of thrillers? Building a pulse-pounding thriller around the lives and fears of average, middle-class Americans is nothing short of a formula for success.
But how’s the writing, you ask? Well, statistically, you’ve probably already read a Coben book, but if you haven’t, here you go: the writing is OK. The book does feel quickly written, as suggested in Konigsberg’s article, and clearly, Coben is not revising each sentence for maximum stylistic impact. Then again, the pages turn quickly, so you won’t find yourself lingering over sentences such as “Panic played at her fringes” for very long. Or this one, which sounds like a line from one of Woody Allen’s old detective-fiction spoofs than a realistic character description:
“She had a model’s face, the kind with cheekbones that could double as letter openers.”
And, in what is one of the longest gun-firing sequences in written history, Coben writes that “The gun exploded,” meaning that it fired, but I found myself picturing everyone around the exploding gun being injured by shrapnel.
But what bothered me more than the sometimes-clumsy turns of phrase, I think, was that the characters all felt pretty thin. There are a lot of them, and they tend to be introduced in shorthand, as they would be in a cop drama or a made-for-TV movie. They’re types and they tend to be defined by one trait.
And for a book that’s as much about young people as this one is, the teens, when they do talk, sure don’t talk like teens. Consider this passage, and try to square it with the last time you overheard high-schoolers talking to each other:
“My point is this. In those days you could survive a mistake. People looked the other way. You were a kid–you were supposed to blow off steam. My father stole a car when he was our age. Got caught, too, but they worked out a side deal. Now my old man is one of the most law-abiding citizens around. But if he had grown up today, he’d be screwed. It’s ridiculous. If you whistle at a girl at school, you can go to jail. If you bump into someone’s chest in the hallway, you can be brought up on some kind of charges. One mistake and you’re out. My dad says that’s nonsense. How are we supposed to find our way?”
Someone’s dad said–nay, wrote–all of that.
Plotting, and twisting the plot (Coben likes to use the verb “twisting” to describe the pressure he applies to the narrative) is clearly his love, and for what-happens-next readers, it’s probably heaven. But a lot of crime fiction fans, I believe, are like me. And I don’t really care that much about plot: I love good, original characters who surprise me. I like it when they live in unusual or well-drawn settings. And, above all, I like atmosphere. It doesn’t have to be a lovingly painted, James Lee Burke kind of atmosphere, but Anyplace, U.S.A. is not my favorite place unless it’s used to specific effect.
Coben the author can also be maddeningly obtuse, allowing his characters to raise bigger issues and philosophical conundrums in interior monologues, only to conclude with the equivalent of a shrug: “Who the heck knew?” It almost as if, while his commercial instincts lead him to build a really big tent for readers, those instincts also preclude him, or even his characters, coming down on any one side of an issue unless it’s completely safe, like allowing that serial killers are bad. Ambiguity of worldview is probably the sign of a sophisticated author, but without a few characters who are sure of themselves, the reader checks out.
It’s difficult to criticize a book such as this–in a way, it’s review-proof. If you cite it as an example of poor writing, you’re a snob who misses the point. If you say it’s poor writing but you enjoyed it anyway, you risk sounding condescending. If you like it unabashedly, you’ll take heat from the litterateurs. I actually liked it well enough, but while I was reading, I kept thinking that I could have spent the time better, with another book. The part that Coben may be most proud of–the accelerating, twisting plot–was the part that I found a bit forgettable. Writing this now, a few weeks after I finished reading, my memory of the final, furious twining of loose ends is somewhat murky. What I do remember is that I didn’t care about any of the characters all that much, and that I never pictured any of the settings that vividly, save for the mall parking lot where one of the victims is abducted. But that’s not due to any of Coben’s descriptive genius. And who hasn’t imagined being abducted in a mall parking lot?
Scrutinizing Coben to this level is probably counterproductive. James Woods doesn’t review J. K. Rowling, and for good reason. I’ve always held that reviewing is very different from the art of criticism. A critic teases out deeper themes and holds the author to the standard they set for themselves (and, often, the standard that the critic sets, too). But a reviewer’s main job is to get the right books to the right people. There’s no point going on about how poor a book is if it’s not the kind of thing you like, anyway. But I did promise to read it, and, even if I’m the only one holding myself to that promise, I’m a man of my word. Though, in this case, I could have stuck with my impression from the article and been none the poorer for it.
But, having established that I’m not really part of Coben’s target audience, I have at least added another benchmark to my survey of popular crime fiction. And that, if nothing else, will help me refine my ability to get the right books to the right people.