March 31, 2016
(+++) AS THE WORLD CRUMBLES
Fool Me Once. By Harlan Coben. Dutton. $28.
The Stranger. By Harlan Coben. Dutton. $9.99.
There is a certain twisty reliability to Harlan Coben’s mysteries, and it permeates both his newest, Fool Me Once, and last year’s The Stranger, now available in paperback. A master of plot twists and turns, Coben consistently places ordinary people in extraordinary but barely plausible circumstances and watches their belief systems unravel as they try to cope with a reality that, it turns out, is very different from the one in which they have previously lived their entire adult lives. Investigations of bizarre or at least significantly misunderstood circumstances eventually lead to surprising findings that, in the end, tie matters up very neatly (sometimes too neatly) and leave the survivors – and readers – drained and breathless.
The central victim of this treatment – that is, the protagonist – in Fool Me Once is Maya Burkett. A former Army special-ops helicopter pilot in Iraq, she has returned home in disgrace after a whistleblower revealed that she targeted a car full of civilians while on a rescue mission. Now, understandably, she has nightmares and is coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. But the stresses are scarcely less at home than they were during her deployment. Her sister, Claire, has been murdered in a home invasion four months before the book starts; and soon after Maya returns to her two-year-old daughter, Lily, and her husband, Joe, there is another killing – of Joe. It happens in a park, right in front of Maya, and in fact Coben starts the book with Maya at Joe’s funeral (filling in the background later). The pileup of terrible things is overdone but not unusual for a thriller, and it certainly establishes that Maya is unstable in some ways and is capable of making horrible judgment errors. That is crucial to the plot, because what really sets things in motion is that Maya reviews the video on a “nanny cam” that a friend gives her so she can keep up with her daughter’s activities during the work day – and there in the video is her dead husband playing with their child. Is she seeing things? Is he really dead? If not, what is going on? And away we go. Maya, like other Coben protagonists, goes into full-on investigative mode after seeing the impossible living-room scene. The pacing in the first part of the book is slower than in some others by Coben: Maya spends a lot of time thinking things through and trying to figure them out rather than actually doing much. But that does make it easier to empathize with her and have a feeling of knowing some of what makes her tick – although Coben is too clever to provide strong clues as to what is reality and what may be in Maya’s PTSD-affected mind. Typically for a Coben thriller, Fool Me Once requires its protagonist not only to look into what sort of person someone else (in this case Maya’s husband) really is, but also to look into what sort of person she herself really is. It is obvious from the start that Maya will need this journey into her own personal hell (or set of hells) to come to terms with what happened in Iraq and what happened (if it did happen) to Joe. And, for that matter, to Claire. Maya’s past is packed with deceit and secrets – the past is usually like that for Coben’s central characters – and just as Maya is not all she at first seems to be, so those around her are not all they seem to be. Maya’s investigation goes through a variety of convolutions, most of them tossed at readers in Coben’s trademark “gotcha” style, and if the book is rather slow to gather a full head of steam, it is highly effective once it has one. Few readers will see where all this is going – Coben is good at sending people down blind alleys – and virtually none will likely figure out where it is going to end up. The ending is exceptionally effective, just about impossible to see coming, and exactly the sort of “wow” moment that keeps readers coming back to thrillers in general and Coben’s books in particular. The book’s title comes, of course, from the cliché, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” But there is no shame at being fooled again and again by Coben – it is what he does, and in general he does it mighty well.
He does it pretty well in The Stranger, too; the book even contains the line, “Put simply, people fool you.” Here the protagonist is a lawyer named Adam Price, living comfortably in the suburbs with his wife, Corinne, and their two sons. Then one day, at a school sporting event, he is approached by the title character and told something about his wife that Corinne has been keeping a secret for years and that, predictably (if you know Coben’s plotting), shatters the family’s carefully arranged and well-balanced life. Adam confronts Corinne with the secret, and she tells him there is more to it than that and she needs time alone. Then she packs her bags and goes off to who-knows-where; Adam certainly does not know. Meanwhile – this is a “meanwhile” sort of thriller – a small-town police chief, Johanna Griffin, is looking into the death of one of her close friends. And somehow the stranger has something to do with what happened. So there is some way in which Adam and Johanna are connected, and the murder may be directly connected with Corinne, and so forth. The characters here are weaker than in Fool Me Once – Adam, in particular, is awfully dense for a successful lawyer, difficult to empathize with, and consistent in failing to use available resources and instead doing pretty much everything the wrong way. This goes beyond befuddlement into authorial over-manipulation. The real-world connections of the book, however, are strong: it deals with detective work (both good and nefarious) that involves computers and smartphones, and includes a ripped-from-the-headlines element involving a white police officer’s shooting of a black man. But The Stranger tries a little too hard to be convincing. The title character turns out to be involved in a sort of whistleblower group (“revealing what people do not want revealed” is a recurrent Coben theme); the organization’s functioning is not very believable. The deep, dark secret that Corinne has – it has to do with faking a pregnancy – is never satisfactorily explained in a way that would show why it was so devastating and had to be buried so thoroughly. On the other hand, the arrangement of the novel as a sort of cat-and-cat-and-mouse-and-mouse game – lots of people looking for lots of other people – makes it a fast and often enjoyable read. The complications are eventually resolved in an ending that is a little too perfect. Longtime thriller readers may almost find it funny, although if they do, it will be about the only amusing thing here: neither this book nor Fool Me Once offers much in the way of leavening humor (although some other Coben books do). The underlying notion of The Stranger is that there are people out there tracking everyone’s every move, digging out bad things from people’s pasts, selling the information to the highest bidder, then using the money they make to perpetuate their search-and-destroy attack on people’s lives. Well, it could be. Certainly there are plenty of technology-adept bad actors out there, and certainly most people, including thriller readers, have a few things in their past that they would prefer not to have revealed to the world at large, or to their families and intimate friends. It is primarily the veneer of plausibility of the foundation of The Stranger that makes the book chilling, even though the specifics of the story and characters are not Coben’s best. Both this book and Fool Me Once are standalone novels; Coben is also known for his Myron Bolitar and Mickey Bolitar series. His preoccupation with the unresolved past means that the standalone books are satisfyingly packed with turmoil and trouble that Coben resolves skillfully at the end. Neither The Stranger nor Fool Me Once is at quite the highest level that Coben has achieved, but both are page-turners of the type that thriller readers want and expect, and neither will disappoint anyone looking for hard-to-figure-out stories in which the things that were come back to haunt the things that are. Coben’s books are the contemporary, super-fast-paced versions of ones that, in the past, built more slowly in showing the truth of Faulkner’s famous statement in Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” And Coben’s protagonists are encapsulations of a much-less-known Faulkner quotation, which appeared in a 1942 magazine article: “Be scared. You can’t help that. But don’t be afraid.” That advice applies just as much to Coben’s fans as to his characters.