Thriller writer Harlan Coben on his latest Netflix series with Joanna Lumley

As his latest thriller is published, the bestselling author talks books, TV – and his Ab Fab star. By Hannah Stephenson.

Hannah Stephenson
Tuesday 28 March 2023 08:30 BST
Harlan Coben (Claudio Marinesco/PA)
Harlan Coben (Claudio Marinesco/PA)

Life has been ab fab for Netflix thriller king and bestselling author Harlan Coben of late.

Having already employed the skills of actor and comedian Jennifer Saunders in his previous Netflix series The Stranger, he has now turned his attention to Joanna Lumley, who is currently filming his new eight-part series Fool Me Once, appearing as a cold, upper crust matriarch of a wealthy family.

Today, the 61-year-old novelist and screenwriter, dressed in jeans, casual shirt and funky green-rimmed glasses, enthuses about the British actor.

“She’s shockingly down to earth and kind. Everyone on set just loves her. I was up on set in Manchester yesterday and they were all giddy over how nice she was – and they’re all hoping for a scene with Joanna Lumley.”

The story is centred on a combat pilot (played by Michelle Keegan) in the military suffering from PTSD whose husband (Richard Armitage), from a wealthy family, is murdered. But, as with all Coben’s work, nothing is quite as it seems.

Lumley plays Armitage’s mother, with Coben saying: “She’s very posh, she’s very rich, she’s very cold – but she’s also a psychiatrist, so she’s clever and has a very interesting relationship with her daughter-in-law.”

The author and TV series creator, whose Netflix hits include Stay Close, Safe, The Five and The Woods, is hugely involved in the productions, from writing to casting and watching the rough cuts of scenes. As executive producer, he leaves no stone unturned.

Coben clearly has a silver pen when it comes to writing, whether it’s crafting a bestselling thriller or creating a gripping TV series. With more than 80 million books in print worldwide, his books are published in 46 languages.

His latest, I Will Find You, is a standalone page-turner about a man wrongly convicted for the murder of his son. He’s in jail when he discovers that the boy is still alive and sets out to find him, which involves a prison break and a game of cat and mouse with the police. As is Coben’s modus operandi, there are twists and turns throughout this fast-moving thriller, which has already been earmarked for a screen adaptation.

“Netflix has it and we are developing what we’re going to do with it now. It’s probably going to be a series, but I’m thinking this might be one that could be a more interesting movie.

“Some [books] will never fit into the two-hour movie time frame and lend themselves to stretching out. This one has such a tight time frame and nonstop story, this might be one to make into a movie.”

Yet Coben says he never writes his books with screen adaptations in mind.

“It sounds self-serving, but the biggest mistake a writer can make is to write a book and think, ‘Ooh, this would make a really good series or a really good movie’. It’s the kiss of death.

“The caveat to that in my case is I’m willing to make tons of changes, so I don’t worry about it. I don’t want to keep slavishly devoted to the text.”

His daughter, Charlotte, who he describes as an “amazing writer”, is following in her father’s footsteps. She contributed to the writing on Stay Close, The Stranger and an episode of Fool Me Once, and is now writing her own series, a pilot for a comedy that will be filmed in Liverpool.

“She wrote most of Shelter [the adaptation of his young adult series] because she is younger. She gives us a lot of the young stories.”

There’s no artistic rivalry between father and daughter, he chuckles. “I hope she crushes me like a bug and I hope her show is so much better than mine.”

With so many crime shows on TV, Coben is at a loss as to how he manages to stay ahead of the game.

“I try my hardest,” he says. “I have a great team in place. We’re always trying to get better.

“Hopefully Fool Me Once is our best show. It’s my only marketable skill. I work on it really hard. I want to try not to just fool you, but to move you.”

He writes one book a year, but is doing a lot of other things as well. How does he juggle it all?

“It’s getting harder, we’ll see how long we can keep it up,” he reflects. He has four grown-up children and his wife, Anne Armstrong-Coben, a paediatrician and dean of admissions for Columbia University’s Medical School, is just as busy as her husband.

When Covid struck, all his children ended up back at home. Coben caught it twice – he didn’t end up in hospital, but felt a bit anxious on his last book tour.

“I’d been home so much, I hadn’t been social and I wondered if I’d still be good at being social – then I went to the first event and saw all these smiling faces. The audience was so happy to be out.”

Netflix recently re-upped their overall deal with Coben for several more years, with his acclaimed Myron Bolitar series going into development.

His TV series adaptation of Shelter for Amazon Studios — starring Jaden Michael and Constance Zimmer and based on Coben’s YA novel of the same name — will be released on Prime Video in the coming months.

He’ll be back and forth between his home in New Jersey and Manchester while Fool Me Once is being made, although with new technology Harlan receives the rough cuts on his tablet or phone, so he can see what they’ve filmed the day before.

But he says he and his writing daughter Charlotte are drawn to the UK because you get more artistic freedom here.

“It’s a little more laid back here. I talked to one of the actors today about some issue that was going on in an American production, where all the lawyers were involved and the business affairs people were involved and we couldn’t get through. In the UK, one agent would call and we’d figure a way of working it out.”

He says it’s “more intimate” in the UK, adding: “I feel like I have more control here.”

I Will Find You by Harlan Coben is published by Century, priced £20. Available now.

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