Best of! Most of! Satiate the need

By Evangeline Jennings

This is something of a variation on a previous theme. I’ve just finished reading two books by Harlan Coben. Neither of them was good.

Stay Close is the latest of Coben’s standalone thrillers. It thrilled me slightly less than The Little Mermaid ride at Disneyland. A lot of people get killed. Nobody really cares. Least of all this reader. The “twist” is obvious. The killer is neither here nor there. And the “freaky” terror couple are as scary as those gay hitmen from that old Bond movie. They remind me of nothing so much as rejects from a Modesty Blaise novel. If you told me Coben dictated Stay Close over the telephone while stuck in New Jersey traffic, I really wouldn’t be surprised. The whole thing reads like a mishmash of leftover characters and plot and left me with a hefty taste of Meh in my mouth.

This has been the case with most of Coben’s standalones – Just One Look is the exception – so it’s no surprise that after three of them he returned to Myron Bolitar and his more interesting friend Windsor Horne Lockwood III. AKA Win. Coben has been alternating between the two styles of late but the most recent Myron Bolitar book, Live Wire (2011) may have been the last.

Live Wire is certainly a prime example of what I was talking about when I wrote It Ain’t What You Do, It’s The Way That You Do It. It’s what happens to a writer who runs out of ideas. In Long Lost, the previous Myron Bolitar, the plot became ludicrous and outlandish. In Live Wire, things go from bad to worse. Coben returns to – and recycles – a brief anecdote about Myron’s father (The Last Detail, 1999) to essentially invent an estranged brother and a whole new traumatic backstory for Myron before promptly killing the poor brother off again. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, poor Brad Bolitar never makes it onto the stage – and I doubt Tom Stoppard is going to help him out.

At least, I suppose, Harlan Coben stops short of giving Myron an evil identical twin. But not far short. He regurgitates jokes and plot lines, and rushes to bring the series to an unbecoming end. And why? To set the stage for Bolitar rebooted – the YA adventures of Myron’s teenage nephew Mickey (real name also Myron). Clearly the only reason for the reinvention of brother Brad.

Let’s not mince words. Live Wire is shit. But I still read it all – and prefer it to Stay Close – because I have an emotional attachment to the characters and because even recycled humour has its appeal. And when, as he surely will, Harlan Coben is desperate enough to bring Myron and Win back from the brink one more fucking time, then I’ll prolly read that book too. But Coben isn’t fooling me, as a novelist, on this evidence, he’s shot.

Lessons learned?

Characters matters.

Humour matters more.

But story, as always, is king.

Oh, and best selling writers can and will lose the plot and jump ship to another genre. See also Rick Riordan.

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