Harlan Coben: Darkness on the edge

Turn off the New Jersey highways and you enter Harlan Coben country, a place full of secrets and struggles. Roz Kaveney tracks down the chart-topping thriller-writer
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The Independent Culture

You drive out of New York, across on to the New Jersey shore, and at first you think you know where you are. It is the drive Tony Soprano takes at the start of every episode, past scruffy small industrial sites and occasional strip joints that look raddled and sad in the light of morning. Then you come off that road and on to the turnings that lead to small, pretty dormitory suburban towns. There are trees and fields and grey wooden-faced houses with pink trim. Suddenly you are out of the obvious threat of Edge City and into a place where threat seems entirely absent.

You drive out of New York, across on to the New Jersey shore, and at first you think you know where you are. It is the drive Tony Soprano takes at the start of every episode, past scruffy small industrial sites and occasional strip joints that look raddled and sad in the light of morning. Then you come off that road and on to the turnings that lead to small, pretty dormitory suburban towns. There are trees and fields and grey wooden-faced houses with pink trim. Suddenly you are out of the obvious threat of Edge City and into a place where threat seems entirely absent.

"Sometimes I think we are very clever out here," Harlan Coben says. "We let people think that The Sopranos is a documentary, and we hide the real New Jersey from them, up side-roads." The four suspense thrillers that have moved Coben from the solid publisher's mid-list to bestsellerdom are all set in the attractive New Jersey towns where he lives and grew up; and they are all obsessed with this notion of hidden places, special places. "New Jersey is a place that defines itself in part by not being New York - it is a place where people come to live in order to lead lives where you do the right thing. It is also, though, a place where dreams come to die."

The sequence of thrillers that Coben started with Tell No One are all about loss, and about clawing back something or someone you thought had gone forever. This is one of the reasons why their simple titles could each serve as titles for any of the other books. "I'm not especially good at titles," he says, "and usually go with what my editors suggest feels right."

In Tell No One, the lost person is a dead wife. In his new book, Just One Look (Orion, £12.99), it is both her kidnapped husband and the past self that Grace lost to amnesia when trampled in a rock concert. Each of these complex plots, though, involves a trade-off. The protagonist buys back what was lost with a portion of their innocence, a portion of their sense that things can ever again be as simple as they were.

Coben is a poet of mixed motives and terrible secrets. All of his villains - and his are books with some very bad people in them - were victims once, in some sense or another. Eric Wu, the bleached-blond Korean hit man who featured in Tell No One and surfaces again in Just One Look, was a child once, before maltreatment deformed him. The books have a sense of the sadness of things that does not stop them being morally robust; Coben is very much one for knocking down Wu and pitying him afterward.

The twists and turns in the plots continue right to the very last page. That would be soulless and gimmicky were it not for the fact that most of the twists and turns come from the complexities of the human heart. It is not that good men turn out to be bad; it is that they love the right thing in the wrong way, or make a spur-of-the-moment choice on inadequate information and have to live with the consequences. The sadness of Coben's heroes and heroines comes from disillusion, from learning to look at their lives, and the people in them, in a new way.

Coben's thrillers are all voyages of discovery, for the author as much as the protagonist. "I always know the beginning, and know most of the ending, and what lies between is the stuff I have to make up as I go. But I always bear in mind that everything has a cost, and that in life there is no reset button." These books are an advance on his early, rightly praised, series about the sports agent Myron Bolitar: not because the losses and disillusionments that hit Myron ever get unsaid, but because a series character can change only so much before the series changes or ends.

It was only during the writing that Coben's new book, Just One Look, acquired its secondary heroine and subplot. In most books and films, Charlaine would have been a disposable victim, but here she becomes Eric Wu's nemesis. Some writers, and most films, would have moralised her habit of exhibitionism; here it is presented without comment as a plot point that makes her notice that her voyeur neighbour has disappeared and that Wu has moved into his house.

These are also books that try, as much as possible, to inhabit the real world. Coben's heroes and heroines do not suddenly acquire special skills; they survive through intelligence and ingenuity, rather than kick-boxing their way through obstacles. Charlaine survives Wu simply by being cleverer than he is and by knowing her limitations realistically: there is a sly humour to the passages in which she outwits him.

One of the differences between Coben's early, slick thrillers about Myron Bolitar and these later ones is the age of their protagonists. Myron was a young man in the sense that he was hoping to settle down, whereas the lead characters of the New Jersey sequence are all people who have reached that level of personal maturity at which you have something serious to lose: the loved ones who are hostages to fortune. What they have in common with Myron is heart, a fundamental decency that means that he and they don't just knock down the ant hills of the lives around them for the sake of it. If they flounder in the course of finding the truth, they do so without malice aforethought. All of Coben's viewpoint characters have a sense of themselves as flawed that stops them acting out of self-righteousness even when they know they are being victimised. No one is more surprised than David Beck in Tell No One to find himself on the run: when he knocks down a policeman, he retains the good moral sense to be sorry for what was a necessity.

Like Myron, whose dangerous Wasp friend Win was one of the most popular things in the series, Coben's recent protagonists generally have a friend with more dubious morals to do some of the heavy lifting. None of those figures, though, is in the book just as a plot convenience. All, to some extent, go on a moral journey similar to that experienced by the main character. Grace, for example, has Vespa, a Mafia boss who lost his son to the disaster that maimed her. In the course of helping her to survive her situation, and solve the riddles that surround her, Vespa, too, finds out things about himself that he would rather not have had brought to his attention.

One of the reasons for the books' sense of the real is that Coben does just enough research. "It's a mistake to know too much," he says, "because then you feel you have to justify it by putting it all in." When Grace first realises her husband is missing, she comes up against what would really happen. The police are not in the business of looking for a spouse who has simply decided suddenly to leave. Coben asked a police chum precisely what would be said to a woman in Grace's position and let the unhelpfulness of the real-life response determine that part of the plot.

This is his standard way of doing research: find someone who knows about things and ask questions. "I need to know how things feel, as well as how they are," he says. "I want flavours, not facts." He needs the small, telling details that are not what springs from the page but the stuff of friendly conversation. When, in No Second Chance, he writes about Marc Seidman's practice as a reconstructive plastic surgeon working with the maimed children of the Third World, he uses the fact that Lafort, the discipline's founder, researched facial fractures by throwing corpses off roofs. "That's something that registers when someone tells you about it - not when you look it up."

The New Jersey suspense novels share some minor characters with the Bolitar books. The periodic re-emergence of the defence lawyer Hester Crimstein - sometimes on stage, and sometimes just as a name that is mentioned - is partly a stroking of Coben's long-term readers and partly a refusal to make up a new character when his stock company contains a perfectly serviceable one. Mostly, though, it has to do with creating a fictional world that is as solid and self-reinforcing as possible.

These are very vivid books. Some-times that is because they take place in a landscape that is both an actual place and a deeply moralised one: we believe in Coben's private mythology of sub-urban life because he shows us so intensely lives led on small crescents where each house has an immaculate driveway. In these communities, moral solidarity is expressed in practical things such as car pools and the prepayment of road tolls.

But it is also because Coben never forgets that, even in the direst of situations, people still remember to eat, or to stick a tape on in the car. "The music they listen to is usually what I happen to be obsessed by at the time," he reveals, "which is why Grace listens to a lot of Coldplay." The music that plays in your head when you read Coben's fiction, though, is also that of Bruce Springsteen: Coben's idol, and New Jersey's other populist poet of wistful moral complexity, regret and hard-won virtue.

Biography: Harlan Coben

Educated at Amherst College, in Massachusetts, Harlan Coben, 42, has, uniquely, won all three major US awards for crime writing - the Shamus, the Edgar and the Anthony. They were awarded for Fade Away and Deal Breaker, two of his sequence of seven thrillers about the sports agent Myron Bolitar. More recently, his New Jersey suspense novels - Tell No One, Gone for Good and No Second Chance - have become international bestsellers. His new novel, Just One Look, is published by Orion, and is currently being filmed by Columbia. Coben was shortlisted for the DHL Author of the Year award at this year's British Book Awards. He lives in New Jersey with his four children and his wife, Anne Armstrong-Coben, medical director of Covenant House, the centre for the rescue of street children.

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