On the very first page of The Boy From the Woods, we meet the decidedly off-beat central character of this gripping thriller. A 1986 newspaper report reveals that two hikers found a feral boy living alone and foraging for himself in the New Jersey mountains. He is about eight years old, can speak, but has no memory of who he is or how he came to be alone.
Thirty years later, having been absorbed into the system and fostered by two good people, Wilde, as he is called, is quite literally a genius, but has always been a loner, even if he is a graduate of West Point and a decorated army special forces veteran.
He lives alone in the woods outside the town he grew up in, working as a private investigator. He is approached by his 17-year-old godson Matthew Crimstein, the grandson of Wilde's long-time mentor, successful criminal lawyer and feisty TV host Hester Crimstein, a tiny woman but a force of nature who has appeared peripherally in a number of recent Coben thrillers. Matthew, whose deceased father was a close friend to Wilde, tells him he is worried about Naomi Pine, a bullied classmate who has gone missing, Wilde springs into action.
His investigations stir up quite a hornets' nest, linking Naomi to the oddly named Crash Maynard, whose mega-wealthy parents, TV producer Dash Maynard and his wife Dot, are unaware of their son's mean streak. Dash is a close friend of reality TV star Rusty Eggers, a presidential hopeful running a far-right presidential campaign that would actually trump Trump.
Wilde finds Naomi, but a week later she disappears again, followed a couple of days later by Crash. Then a severed finger turns up, with a ransom note demanding that Dash hands over incriminating videotapes of Rusty Eggers that the kidnappers insist, despite his vehement denials, he possesses. The scene is set for a satisfying denouement which is followed by a sweetly sentimental coda that fortunately escapes being cloying.
With more than 75 million books in print and translated into 42 languages, Harlan Coben is one of America's most successful contemporary thriller writers. The secret of his success? Coben sets his hook deep very early on with a killer premise and then relentlessly reels in his readers as his deftly plotted tale ratchets up the tension and action to a violent, cathartic and ultimately satisfying climax. Each new novel is a textbook lesson in thriller writing.
Most recently Coben has successfully moved into film, forging a massive deal with Netflix that sees the American streaming giant taking options of 14 of Coben's books and first refusal on any stand-alone TV ideas he may have.
He has, as a police blotter might put it, 'previous' in this area. In 2006, his book Tell No One was filmed by former showjumper-turned-poster boy of French cinema, Guillaume Canet. It was a massive hit and won four César Awards in 2007, What impressed Coben was that Canet involved him in every stage of the process of pre-production and filming, something unthinkably alien to the Hollywood machine.
It was exactly the same for the recent nail-bitingly tense eight-episode Netflix adaptation of his 2015 novel, The Stranger, set in England with a cast that includes Richard Armitage, Dervla Kirwan, Jennifer Saunders and Siobhan Finneran. He was on top of everything, from casting to dialogue, acting as a co-producer, while his 25-year-old daughter Charlotte wrote Episode 5. Interestingly, all Coben's film credits so far are in Europe, perhaps because his books travel so well.
There have been three English adaptations, three French and a forthcoming Spanish production El Inocente, a Polish Netflix adaptation of his 2007 novel The Woods and Julia Roberts is apparently currently making Coben's Fool Me Once. Talk about flavour of the month, but Coben's hugely immersive books and movies should come with a danger of addiction warning.
In next week's Review, Harlan Coben talks to Darragh McManus