Saturday 16 December 2017

Master of smoke and mirrors

Thrillers: Fool Me Once, Harlan Coben, Century, hdbk, 400 pages, €28.50

Twists and turns: Harlan Coben's new novel revolves around a wife who spots her dead husband playing with their daughter on the nanny cam.
Twists and turns: Harlan Coben's new novel revolves around a wife who spots her dead husband playing with their daughter on the nanny cam.

Myles McWeeney

With well over 60 million books in print in 41 different languages, Harlan Coben slugs it out with the likes of Jeffrey Deaver, Michael Connelly, James Patterson and Lee Child for the title of most successful contemporary thriller writer.

Coben, now in his mid-fifties, came to prominence in the mid-1990s with a series of mysteries featuring a former college basketball star turned sports agent called Myron Bolitar and his sociopath billionaire sidekick Win, aka Windsor Horne Lockwood III. It can be no coincidence that Coben himself, a burly 6ft 4in, was a basketball player of some note when he attended the Little Ivy League Amherst College in Massachusetts.

The hot-headed yet genuinely soft-centred Myron made his first appearance in Deal Breaker in 1995, and his popularity with the reading public was cemented by two further adventures published the following year, Drop Shot and Fade Away. Laced with laugh-out-loud humour and sparky dialogue, Myron and Win's adventures propelled Coben towards the top of the bestsellers lists in America, and established him as an up-and-coming thriller writer.

This reputation was cemented with the publication of Tell No One, his first standalone thriller. Published in 2001, it concerns a respected medic, Dr David Beck, who is still in mourning over the disappearance and death of his wife Elizabeth eight years previously when he suddenly receives a mysterious email purporting to be from her and warning him not to tell anyone. Beck turns from the people he trusts most and sets out in search of the truth. Genuinely spine-chilling, Tell No One sold by the truck load.

One of the reasons this book, and the following two standalone mysteries Gone for Good and No Second Chance, scored so heavily with the reading public is that they are set in an immediately recognisable landscape, small suburban American communities with normal people busy living out the American dream of 2.4 children, two-car garages and neat split-level ranch house with yards and barbecues.

Coben then sets about demolishing the dream by showing just how fragile the whole concept is and that, however well you think you may know your neighbours, for the most part they only let you see what they want you to see. Very tellingly, his protagonists tend to be average guys in desperate situations struggling against the odds to save their loved ones from harm. One critic perceptively observed that what makes Coben's books so enthralling is that they are about "domestic space imperilled". Fool Me Once is slightly different, in that the main character is a woman, Maya Burkett. A disgraced former special ops pilot with the American Air Force, Maya was forced to resign when a whistleblower posted a video of her ordering a strike in which five Iraqi civilians were killed. She has just buried her husband, Joe, shot in front of her in a mugging in Central Park. This is a double tragedy for her, because her sister Caroline had also been shot dead two months earlier in a home invasion.

Several days after Joe's funeral, Maya is shocked to the core by an image she sees on the nanny cam she has installed to keep an eye on her two-year-old daughter Lily - her dead husband playing with Lily in the den in their home. How can this be? She quizzes the child's nanny, Isabella Mendez, who denies the man is Joe, then blasts Maya with a pepper spray and disappears with the memory card.

Should Maya go to the police, who had been of little help in Joe or Caroline's death? She suddenly realises that she is under suspicion for Joe's death, and when the investigator in charge of the case reveals that both Joe and her sister had been killed by the same gun, she realises she will have to sort out the mystery through her own resources. What she learns in the course of this pell-mell roller-coaster twist-filled descent into a personal nightmare is that everything she believed about her nearest and dearest could have been based on lies and falsehoods. Another masterful display from the master of smoke and mirrors fiction.

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