Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Innocent by Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben’s characters inhabit a world familiar to many of us who grew up in suburban America. Ideally, it’s a world of lovely, wide green lawns, ball fields where kids could begin their glide to sports immortality, beer parties in friends’ homes where parents were absent, first sexual encounters in the back seat at the local drive-in, and the general haze of growing to adulthood in the second half of the twentieth century where suburbia supplanted rural America as the place where America’s families settled and its youth grew up. Coben turns this familiar world over and discovers the ugly underbelly of suburbia. In his world violence, greed, ugliness, and brutal pain are always just around the corner or down the tree shaded street. Local law enforcement often consists of home-grown good old boys not up to the discipline or rigors of modern law enforcement. Venal corruptors are everywhere waiting to destroy the weak and restore the law of the jungle to its rightful place. The world according to Coben is a dangerous place with a thin veneer of the good life covering the slime of reality. It gives us the suburban hell we all fear and seek to submerge in our consciousness. It’s in this nasty place where Coben takes his reader in each of his novels.

Coben began his writing career giving readers the likable sports agent Myron Bolitar and his psychotic side-kick Wynn. Bolitar, who grew up in Livingston as a basketball star and almost made it to the professional level before blowing out his knee, has established himself as a sports agent who often has to help his clients out of serious trouble. With the aid of Wynn, millionaire financier and martial arts wizard with no conscience to keep him from using his physical skills to their best advantage, Bolitar often works the sub-divisions and mansions of suburban Livingstone to solve clients’ problems. The books are tense and exciting page turners, and Bolitar’s wise-ass persona dominates them with joy and élan.

But the series detective genre seems not to have provided sufficient breadth for Coben, and he may have made enough money from the Bolitar novels to permit him a larger scope. The result has been a series of riveting stand-alone novels. The Innocent is a terrific page-turner making a significant contribution to Coben’s non-genre stand-alones. Matt Hunter, as a college student, is involved in a drunken fight during a college road trip resulting in the death of a young man. Tried and convicted of murder in this accidental death, Hunter serves four years and returns to his now ruined life in New Jersey. As time passes, he is able to resurrect some of the life he has lost, but is still haunted by the killing. He goes to law school, but is unable to take the bar exam, and thus begins working as a legal assistant in a local white-shoe law practice. He marries Olivia, a woman who has come back into his life after a brief encounter years before in Las Vegas, and with her pregnancy and the promise of purchasing a home in Livingstone, Matt’s life seems to be on the track to being resurrected.

Into Matt’s increasingly orderly world, chaos intervenes. A mysterious telephone call, a couple of pictures on his cell phone, a murder or two, and some circumstantial evidence all point right at Matt. Meanwhile a local cop, a county investigator (Lauren Muse, who has appeared in other Coben novels), the FBI, and a leggy, beautiful private eye are all involved in separate ways. And Matt is on the run. As Matt’s life devolves, the story becomes increasingly taught and riveting. As a reader, I often find Coben’s writing so intense I must put it down for a while to reduce my own internal tension. Coben leaves a couple of too obvious clues in this otherwise almost faultless thriller. An advantage of stand-alone thrillers lies in the author’s not having to spare his hero, thus the question of whether Matt will be able to work through all his problems stays before the reader right through to the end. The Innocent is a worthy addition to the Coben list and will provide any reader of thriller fiction or lover of suburban peace and quiet several hours of very satisfactory reading.

The Innocent is available through chain bookstores, Coben’s own web site, or your local independent bookseller.