Review by New York Times Review
THERE ARE a lot of ways for a novelist to create suspense, but also really only two: one a trick, one an art. The trick is to keep a secret. Or many secrets, even. In Lee Child's books, Jack Reacher always has a big mystery to crack, but there are a series of smaller mysteries in the meantime, too, a new one appearing as soon as the last is resolved. J. K. Rowling is another master of this technique - Who gave Harry that Fire-bolt? How is Rita Skeeter getting her info? The art, meanwhile, the thing that makes "Pride and Prejudice" so superbly suspenseful, more suspenseful than the slickest spy novel, is to write stories in which characters must make decisions. "Breaking Bad" kept a few secrets from its audience, but for the most part it was fantastically adept at forcing Walter and Jesse into choice, into action. The same is true of "Freedom," or "My Brilliant Friend," or "Anna Karenina," all novels that are hard to stop reading even when it seems as if it should be easy. Both the pleasure and the limitation of many thrillers, like THE STRANGER (Dutton, $27.95), by Harlan Coben, is that they rely so heavily on that first kind of tension. Their fealty is always only to the next page, then the next, then the next, and so they're wanton with our interest, constantly planning new seductions for it along the way. It makes them deeply immersive in the moment, but strangely evanescent: in other words, beach reads. As far as beach reads go, though, Coben's are among the best. In "The Stranger" he again takes a happy suburban family and destroys it, which, judging by his sales, is just the frisson that a lot of the members of those families are looking for. This time around his victim is Adam Price, a New Jersey lawyer; one evening, a man approaches Adam with the devastating news that his wife, Corinne, faked her last pregnancy, and worse still that their two sons may not be his. Coben describes Adam's search for the truth behind these allegations - and the identity of the person who made them - with masterly skill, springing surprises, raising stakes, seamlessly integrating other victims of the "stranger" into Adam's tale. He's also a smooth, funny writer. James Patterson chivies his reader along toward his next plot point, but Coben likes to pause and make the kind of ephemeral observation that Ian McEwan so accurately called "one of the writer's great pleasures" - at a lacrosse game, for instance, Adam thinks of how "we pretend otherwise, but we watch only our own child," or at another moment, contemplating tragedy, how "the world moves on, which is an outrage." Still, the real point is the chase. After Adam confronts her, Corinne leaves, and he tries with increasing desperation to pull her back, hoping to salvage their life together. The book's denouement is enough to make you later to bed than you wanted. And yet throughout, both he and we are more happened-to than happening, waiting on those secrets. When they arrive, of course, they seem diminished in importance, and a day or two after I finished "The Stranger," I found I had already forgotten many of its particulars. Coben, Child - they get accused of writing the same books over and over. But if each new book makes the reader amnesiac, does it matter? Another new domestic novel, less mechanically proficient than "The Stranger" but more likely to linger in the reader's mind, is THE DAYLIGHT MARRIAGE (Algonquin, $24.95), by Heidi Pitlor. It belongs to the booming microgenre of the missing wife, and in this case that's Hannah Hall, whose husband, a climatologist named Lovell, becomes alarmed after she fails to pick up their kids at school one day. There's an enormous technical difficulty with this kind of book: The author must hold the husband in a state of weird suspension throughout, since he's either (a) a murderer or (b) the victim of terrible circumstances. (Not surprisingly, it was Gillian Flynn who most adroitly solved this difficulty, just one of the innumerable brilliancies of "Gone Girl.") At the same time, it's a perfect microscope with which to examine the inexhaustible fascinations of marriage, and as Pitlor flashes between the day of Hannah's disappearance and Lovell's uneasy consideration of their past resentments, she finds a nice voice - thoughtful, lyrical, unforced. Because of this, and because it's a quick, light-footed read, "The Daylight Marriage" ends up just about surmounting its flaws of construction, even its unsatisfying solution. "Oh, my whole life feels like an epilogue right now," Hannah says in the last fight she and Lovell have before she vanishes, and it's ambiguous clues like this that keep the reader curious - and perhaps also clarify the popularity of this style of book. Culturally, we're at a strange moment halfway between the old notions of what a woman's life can be, and the new ones. Marriage, children, suburbia: Is escape from these things a dream, or a nightmare? Coben and Pitlor both work within the textbook definition of the thriller, which is to take an ordinary life and turn it upside down. Historical thrillers, by contrast, often look for moments where the whole world is upside down, and see what's come unstuck. That's what Francine Mathews does in the excellent TOO BAD TO DIE (Riverhead, $27.95), a dramatization of Ian Fleming's career in naval intelligence. The story tracks James Bond's creator from Cairo to Tehran across an eight-day period in 1943, when Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met, in part to plot the invasion of Normandy. It's an inspired setting - an astonishing array of historical figures cross the page, from Alan Turing to Averell Harriman to Lavrenti Beria. Fleming, though, is the star. Handsome, sharp and patriotic, he also seems irretrievably wounded by the isolation of his youth at boarding school and the early death of his father. In the book's crackerjack cold open, which captures an entire certain field of Britishness in a few pages, he gets the news of that death from a sympathetic headmaster, who nevertheless proceeds to beat him with a slipper for a minor infraction. It seems convincing, thereafter, when Mathews has Fleming constantly escape into half-formed daydreams about a spy with a license to kill. His foe here is an appropriately dread one, the "Fencer," a German agent plotting to kill the big three Allied leaders while they're in one place. With the assistance of a mysterious beauty, Fleming endures torture and betrayal to prevent that from happening. The book is best when it sticks close to him; its attentions become too diffuse in its middle section, as each character takes a turn at center stage, as if Mathews was unable to resist the richness of her research. Fortunately, most of "Too Bad to Die" is fast, fun and wonderfully intelligent. When Fleming is kidnapped, she writes, "Ian was given a dark suit, abominably cut, and a white dress shirt" - and that "abominably cut," its darting flight into Fleming's consciousness, is the kind of moment that makes this novel wholly worthy of its ingenious subject. The genre that Bond helped pioneer is at a down moment. As John Updike wrote in 2005, "the spy thriller still pines for the Soviet Union," and at least from a distance, these days, spying seems to have turned into one more desk job, with fewer dead drops, less chicanery at border crossings, and our country's murky, awful, transnational enemies perhaps too elusive to provide a foil as compelling as Karla. In THE SWIMMER (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99), Joakim Zander tries valiantly to transfer some of the Cold War's old cat-and-mouse verve to our times, in part by making his villains corporate, an interesting gambit. The book is primarily the story of Klara Walldéen, a young political aide in Brussels whose ex-boyfriend draws her into an explosive secret, a trove of photographs showing torture even graver than that at Abu Ghraib. Facing off against the mercenaries responsible for these atrocities, Klara finds an unexpected ally, the swimmer of the book's title, a disillusioned old Langley hack. At moments, particularly in his depiction of George, a coked-up publicist shanghaied into cahoots with the baddies, Zander handles this material well. He's a smart, fluid observer - but of what? Like so much spy fiction, "The Swimmer" seems to be a pastiche of a pastiche, its stylishness (as translated from the Swedish by Elizabeth Clark Wessel) borrowed from other authors' guesswork. A character "lacks the deadly, quicksilver intelligence of a Navy SEAL, so he's probably Special Forces." Um, O.K.? If the world of "The Swimmer" is unearned, its twists are nevertheless half engrossing, promising enough that Zander may join the league of novelists currently writing decent espionage stories of the new century, like Olen Steinhauer and Alex Berenson. But it's hard to care when all of them work so definitely within the same etiolated tradition - epigones of Deighton, le Carré, McCarry. Some genius needs to come along and dissolve this genre, then build it again on the ruins. It was fine when the old spymasters who inspired Zander did it, but I have an appeal to make to the authors of scientific thrillers: Please stop saving the world. For once just save Seattle, or something. The trouble is that saving the world means coming up with a genuinely existential threat to humanity, which so often forces writers into cartoonish depictions of evil. It's this broadness that ultimately sinks THE DOOMSDAY EQUATION (Morrow/HarperCollins, paper, $14.99) by Matt Richtel, which otherwise has the makings of a good thriller. The book's premise concerns a complex algorithm that can predict global conflicts. The algorithm's inventor, Jeremy Stillwater, was a brash Silicon Valley Wunderkind, now disgraced because his program's predictions failed. He's still brash, however, which has cost him the two people he really loves, his girlfriend and her son. It's them he considers when his program suddenly warns him about a massive impending catastrophe. Could it be right this time? The way Richtel sets up Jeremy's impossible task, as well as his possible redemption, is good. It's his enemies that let us down. The fatal moment comes after about a hundred pages: "Of course," one of the bad guys ruminates, "there is only one book, the Bible, the word." So, Dan Brown territory. Jeremy pursues these zealots, who are supposed to be tech-savvy, invincible, invisible and legion, though apparently they're also stupid enough to set up a secret passcode that's simply an exchange of lyrics from one of Bob Marley's best-known songs. The book proceeds toward its showdown without the result in doubt. Instead it's liveliest in small moments - a few brief acidities about start-up culture and many insightful thoughts on technology, for instance the Internet's power to create "such a huge sample size of language that it betrays what we, the human race, think." The strong setup and sharp elbows of "The Doomsday Equation" prove that Richtel has the potential to write a blockbuster one day. He might just have to go smaller to do it. THE WORLD is in trouble again in THE DEAD LANDS (Grand Central, $26), by Benjamin Percy. "No one knows where the flu came from," he writes. Well, I do! It came from George R. Stewart, then Stephen King, then Cormac McCarthy, and they have a lot to answer for. As I read the solemn, torpid opening chapters of Percy's book, my heart fell: another pandemic, another set of scraggy toughs, some sputtering electricity and frontier justice, a few wryly evoked leftovers from the glossy, taken-for-granted old world, the one we live in now. Another post-apocalyptic novel. These are so ubiquitous now that writers are obliged to offer some slight wrinkle to the formula; Emily St. John Mandel made "Station Eleven" about a troupe of Shakespearean actors, and drew them so persuasively that they overcame their stale backdrop. (Precisely what good actors should do.) Percy's idea, too, is agreeably loaded with signifiers: Starting out from a heavily fortified St. Louis, a man and a woman who happen to be named Lewis and Clark go on a long journey toward a possible fresh beginning for mankind. After its portentous start, "The Dead Lands" picks up some speed, and Percy creates sharp, memorable characters, in particular St. Louis's malevolent mayor. The problem is how waterlogged the whole enterprise is by seriousness. Once you've killed off more or less everyone alive, it's all right to write a brisk story and let the implications of the situation look after themselves. There will be fans of the post-apocalyptic who adore the solemnity of "The Dead Lands," but to me it seemed - like our planet in the future, it would appear - mostly lifeless. That would be the least apposite word to describe the dark, bloody triumph that is I, RIPPER (Simon & Schuster, $27.99), by Stephen Hunter. As its title indicates, this novel consists in part of a diary of Jack the Ripper, whose killing spree in the fall of 1888, a gravely over-farmed piece of fictional turf, is revivified by Hunter's careful tending. The diary is convincingly mad, alternatively even-tempered, hallucinatory and cackling, and complementing it are the retrospective reports of "Jeb," a sardonic music writer on Jack's trail. Both characters are too eager to offer the pat reflection that the murders represent a decisive turn toward "modernity," whatever that is, but the book's characters are great, its race to capture the murderer is beautifully tense, and it has one of the best twists I can remember in any recent historical thriller. The only reason to avoid "I, Ripper" would be its unforgiving brutality. Some lines, among hundreds of similar ones: "My gloves were heavy with blood and smeared with near-liquid fat.... I sawed. I jabbed. I cut off her nose, cheeks, eyebrows and ears." Is there a utility to this, beyond voyeurism? Looking something horrific directly in the face, I suppose. There's a common observation that we read thrillers in order to explore the darkness of life safely, thereby negating it. This, rather than mere bloodletting, is probably Hunter's purpose. He wants to know how humans can do what humans can do, down to the worst of it. Those thrillers that truly transcend their debt to momentum often have that spirit, and it may be that the news of the world these days - the beheadings, the violence against women - has yet to superannuate our need for their bleak exorcisms. Alas. CHARLES FINCH is the author, most recently, of the novel "The Last Enchantments."
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [May 31, 2015]
Review by Booklist Review
In this stand-alone thriller, Coben once again mines the potential of contemporary technology to destroy lives. In this case, the cookie trail we leave behind on the Internet with our purchases, searches, e-mails, and texts reverses the Hansel and Gretel story, where their crumbs were supposed to lead to their rescue. Instead, our cookies can lead predators to us. Coben presents several narratives on this theme, with the plight of one suburban dad the central story. Adam Price has a high-paid job, a beautiful wife, and two teen sons in a small New Jersey town. One day, a stranger informs Price that Price's wife faked her last, unsuccessful pregnancy, providing a site to check out. Once Price confronts his wife with his hard-won Internet evidence, she skips town. Coben spikes Price's search for his wife with more chilling examples of the stranger blackmailing others who have left virtual tracks. The conceptual hook here is a stunner. Much of the book is exciting, but it would be more exciting at about half the length, and the ending, in which the chatty bad guy helps reveal his motives and methods, will strike some as ludicrous. A good run that stops short of the finish line. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Coben's track record as a consistent New York Times best-selling author and as winner of the Edgar, Anthony, and Shamus Awards ensures a mega-audience.--Fletcher, Connie Copyright 2015 Booklist
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
Bestseller Coben (Missing You) continues to turn out thrillers that put highly original spins on a current trend or problem, and while this standalone lacks the nail-biting suspense of his best, it's clever enough to be thoroughly entertaining. Adam Price, wife Corinne, and sons Ryan and Thomas are living the suburban dream in Cedarfield, N.J. Then, at a bar in Cedarfield's American Legion Hall, a man known only as the stranger reveals to Adam a secret of Corinne's that shatters the dream and causes Corinne to disappear. The stranger similarly imparts devastating secrets to Heidi Dann, a middle-aged woman with a family in Beachwood, Ohio, and Michaela Siegel, a medical student in New York City. Price shifts his search efforts from Corrine to the stranger, who is also being pursued by some extremely nasty characters. Lives and reputations are lost along the way. Even when not at his best, Coben is very good, and readers won't be disappointed. Agent: Lisa Erbach Vance, Aaron Priest Literary Agency. (Mar.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Review by Library Journal Review
Adam Price's biggest concern is whether his son will be part of the high school's traveling lacrosse team. During a team draft meeting, a stranger approaches Adam, giving him devastating news about his wife, Corinne. When Adam confronts Corinne, she asks him to give her some time and disappears, leaving him a cryptic text message. This begins Adam's nightmare as he tries to find out the truth, protect his sons, and find his wife. He must also come to realize what Corinne had told him: it isn't what he thinks, and many things are not what they seem. Coben (Missing You) deftly weaves many seemingly disconnected characters into one cohesive tale of suspense, with an expertly realized New Jersey setting. Verdict Coben's latest stand-alone is a great story for people who like to examine the ephemeral nature of those strings that bind our dreams to our reality. And while it is a slight departure from his usual type of thriller, this book will be enjoyed as well by Coben's many fans. [See Prepub Alert, 9/22/14.]-Elizabeth Masterson, Mecklenburg Cty. Jail Lib., Charlotte, NC (c) Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review
Another one of Coben's got-it-all New Jersey dads finds out that his wonderful wife has been hiding a whopper of a secret from hima secret whose trail leads to even more monstrous revelations."We're living the dream," Tripp Evans assures Adam Price at their sons' sixth-grade lacrosse all-star team draftlacrosse, for crying out loud. But the dream is already slipping from Adam's grasp as Tripp speaks. Minutes earlier, a young stranger who declined to give his name had sidled up to Adam and informed him that his wife had faked her first pregnancy, which had supposedly ended in a miscarriage. When an agonized Adam confronts Corinne with the story, she doesn't deny it. Instead, she pleads for more time and promises that she'll tell all over a restaurant dinner the following day. Adam, who's clearly never read anything by Coben (Missing You, 2014, etc.), agrees, and Corinne checks out of her high school teaching job and vanishes, pausing just long enough to text Adam: "YOU TAKE CARE OF THE KIDS. DON'T TRY TO CONTACT ME. IT WILL BE OKAY." Days pass, and it's not OK. Adam's two boys (are they really even his? should he run DNA tests?) keep asking where their mom is. There's no word from Corinne, who won't answer Adam's texts. Her cellphone places her somewhere near Pittsburgh. Rumors about her start to percolate through the lacrosse league. And, although it'll take Adam quite a while to find this out, a murder in far-off Ohio has implications for Corinne's disappearance even more disturbing than anything Adam's imagined. Coben can always be relied on to generate thrills from the simplest premises, but his finest tales maintain a core of logic throughout the twists. This 100-proof nightmare ranks among his most potent. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.