It is possible for a life to go so badly wrong that it can never be right again. In Caught, social worker and basketball coach Dan goes to an empty house to help a teenager he knows, and suddenly a camera crew jump out at him. He is accused of grooming a younger girl for sex, and child pornography is found on his computer; acquitted on a technicality, he is on the run, fair game for beatings and torture by relatives of the children he is accused of abusing. Marcia's life ends more simply; her teenage daughter Haley disappears.
The opening chapter of this excellent thriller is a salutary warning of how fragile civilised life can seem. Harlan Coben, though, is not primarily telling either of these stories, but rather that of the widowed single mother Wendy Tynes, the television presenter who at first assumes that Dan is just another rapist of children against whom her agent provocateur tactics are justified. He rings her, and keeps insisting on his innocence, and the instinct that normally tells her she is right hears him differently.
Grayson, one of the parents of children he is supposed to have raped, asks her to help him kill Dan, and it is not just distaste for vigilantism that makes her decline. Grayson nonetheless kills him, in front of her, and suddenly it becomes important to Wendy to check that she was not complicit in the hounding and death of an innocent.
This is a novel about how far you let yourself go in a good cause, and how you live with yourself afterwards. Coben's plots are always ingenious but that is never the point of them, so much as the emotional turmoil into which his characters are plunged by what happens to them and by what they do.
Wendy is harshly vengeful to the woman drunk whose car killed her husband. Now she has to accept a moral responsibility of her own. The careers of Dan's college roommates have all ended in scandal and disaster. Has Wendy let herself be the tool of some conspiracy? Or was the dead Dan innocent of child rape, but guilty of Haley's murder, and has Wendy simply ensured that an abducted girl will never be found? Coben resolves all of this with twists and turns of plot that he has carefully prepared, but in the end what we take away from this book is less his ingenuity than his wisdom.
Roz Kaveney's 'Superheroes! Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Films' is published by IB Tauris