Sunday 18 February 2018

Contented suburban life undone by secrets... again

The verdict on Harlan Coben's novel of a stranger who seems intent on wrecking lives

Author Harlan Coven. Photo: Miriam Berkley
Author Harlan Coven. Photo: Miriam Berkley

Eilis O'Hanlon

Adam Price is living the American dream. Big house in the New Jersey suburbs. Prestigious job at a law firm. Beautiful wife. Two healthy adoring sons. Unfortunately for him, he also happens to be a character in a Harlan Coben novel, so that dream, as the trailers for movies always say, is about to turn into a nightmare. His wrong turn begins when a stranger comes up to him out of nowhere and tells Adams that his wife deceived him two years previously when she told him she was having another baby.

Adam does some digging, and discovers that the stranger was telling the truth. There was no baby, no miscarriage. He confronts his wife, Corinne. Far from being shamed by his revelation, Corinne tells Adams that he doesn't know what he's dealing with and promptly disappears, leaving only a text message telling him to look after "the kids". Within hours he learns that she may have stolen a substantial sum of money from a committee on which she sits. Adams begins to search both for her and for the stranger who has seemingly wrecked their lives.

It's the archetypal Harlan Coben narrative of a contented suburban life undone by secrets. Adam is not the only one to get a visit from the stranger. One woman learns that her daughter is paying her way through college as a call girl. A father discovers that his son, a promising athlete, is abusing steroids. The stranger seems to know so much about them, but what is his motive? There's clearly more to it than mere blackmail.

Meanwhile, the stranger himself may have bitten off more than he can chew when he interferes in the life of a psychotic former New York cop run out of the force for killing an unarmed black man.

This is a world that the author understands to its roots; New Jersey is his home, too. The rituals and rhythms of small town America are gracefully evoked. Likewise, the ways in which technology and the internet can lay bare a person's hidden life. How even the apps on our phones betray us. But Coben has written more than 20 novels at this stage, working out at well over two million words. It would be miraculous if a certain staleness had not set in. There's an awful lot of typing here, as opposed to actual writing. Words are deployed in the same way the teenage athlete uses steroids, to bulk out a scrawny body into something more formidable. There are too many pointless conversations with forgettable minor characters, and unnecessary sentences that serve as punctuation rather than storytelling: "The representative asked whether she could assist him with any other matter. He said no, thanks. She wished him a good evening. He hung up the phone".

More incredibly still, the stranger's identity and modus operandi is revealed little more than halfway through the book, whilst the psycho ex-cop's responsibility for some nasty murders that occur along the way is never even concealed from the reader. The narrative is thus stripped of all suspense, save for the puzzle of what happened to Corinne.

There's one of the author's trademark twists to that storyline, but it's not really sufficient to make the effort it took to get there worth­while.

If the stranger sidled up to Coben, that would surely be his dark secret. That he's done this before, and done it better, and will ­assuredly do it again, but he didn't need to do it this time.


The Stranger

Harlan Coben

Orion, hbk, 400p, £10

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

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