Friday, March 26, 2010

Caught: a novel by Harlan Coben

This is the story of Dan Mercer, social worker, ex-husband, godfather and friend to children everywhere, who entered a red door one night and lost everything. It is also the story of Wendy Tynes, widow, MILF and tabloid reporter whose expose on child predators may have destroyed the life of an innocent man. It is also the story of Haley McWaid, a bright, happy teen reeling from a few of life's big disappointments...and missing. In the world of Harlan Coben it's never a question of will any of these lives intersect, but how and when they do what ugly truths will be revealed when all the surfaces get stripped away. What long sought redemptions will be granted? What shattered hope will be pieced back together? The last two questions are almost always the biggest tools in Harlan Coben's kit and he tackles them always in the same predictably unpredictable framework.

Early on in the novel, we learn in quick succession, two very important facts: First, Tynes was made a widow by a drunk driver named Ariana Nasbro. Nasbro has also been writing letters to the family seeking, if not forgiveness, then a chance to clear the air. Secondly, Dan Mercer was the victim of a set-up. He has evidence to prove it and wants to meet with Tynes. For the record, Dan has already been cleared by the court of law but the court of public opinion doesn't look to kindly on Dan's alleged dalliances with underage girls captured on a To Catch A Predator style tabloid show hosted by Tynes. Nasbro's appeals to Wendy are part of the novel's recurrence of characters seeking vindication from those whose lives they've most irreparably damaged. It's also around this point of the review where the tap dancing begins because the information divulged so far doesn't begin to cover every element of the story.

Around page 60, Frank Tremont, a retired federal agent and father to one of the alleged victims of Dan Mercer, offers up a philosophical quandary and real world solution that begins and ends with the death of Dan Mercer. However, he introduces a wild card in the form of Ariana Nasbro and the redemption/forgiveness theme of the novel is brought front and center with tinges of "given the opportunity I'd kill you where you stand" rhetoric for good measure since redemption, and it never is especially in a Harlan Coben novel, isn't always such a cut and dried topic of discussion.

Within the next seventeen pages Coben will throw one of his most effective early novel haymakers. Not to say he doesn't have any doozies saved up for later, but to stagger the reader so effectively so early on is a bit of a departure from his formula. Halfway sure, ninety percent definitely, but one fifth of the way through a novel it lends it one of the most stifling airs of waiting for the other shoe to drop that has ever beset a Harlan Coben novel. In light of this departure it should be noted that this novel lacks a deranged, silent, face breaking, pressure point manipulating psychopath of any sort that have populated Coben's earlier works (unless you count Windsor Horne Lockwood III's appearance, but no mention of his martial arts prowess or psychotic tendencies are made only his haughty superiority and propensity for one night stands). Coben is all about subtle tweaks to his formula and finding effective ways to still dole out his surprises, but the omission of a psychopath seems to suggest that, in this case, all expert manipulation of the body (from feeling gutshot at a haymaker, to the small smile that creeps on your face at a joke or the prospect of closure/redemption/forgiveness) will be done by an eternal optimist and not his id (facebreaking psychos). Even still it manages to be one of the most oppressive and damning books in Coben's catalogue if only for all the indignities to his name any one character has to suffer. It also contains the second worst betrayal to any character's memory in all of Coben.

"Caught" is typical Coben, which is to say good Coben. It reveals the man to be as much a fighter as a novelist. He staggers you early with a punch and when it's well placed you feel it for a long time afterward. You survive, but you're different than you were before. Any good fight will leave you a little winded, why not a good book?

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