Saturday, 29 May 2010


In many ways, Caught represents Harlan Coben at his best. Coben's thrillers have always involved ordinary people caught up in situations beyond their control, and it's Coben's definition of ordinary which often makes them so successful. Inevitably, the setting is affluent suburban New Jersey, but to Coben the bland pleasantness of suburban life often hides dark secrets. Even the most comfortable people turn out to have pasts that haunt them, or come back to haunt them. And the veneer of stability is easily shattered, the hierarchy of suburban concern easily toppled.

So it is when, in a town already shaken by the disappearance of an all-American girl from the local high school, TV reporter Wendy Tynes executes a sexual predator sting on Dan Mercer, social worker and coach of kiddie basketball. The cases, of course, turn out to have links, but soon Mercer is shot dead by a vengeful parent, and as Tynes begins to investigate, nothing turns out to be what it seems. Including her own position.

Much of the story is familiar territory, in both senses of the word, even the everyday nature of the crimes (not child abuse, I hasten to add) at the centre of the story. This is a device he has used before, the mundane origins of key events. But their reuse merely emphasises a point; that crime is not just premeditated violence, but often grows out of the pressures of life, even the idealised life of suburban American. This is, I would argue, the root of the suspense which makes his novels such compulsive reading; the situations are familiar, and the threat to families is one with which readers can identify. When the Coben hero starts having the forces of society mobilized against him or her, the reader is already sympathetic.

Which raises a problem here, because to the point where sympathies begin to be turned toward Tynes, she has not really done anything to deserve it. In fact, the obsessiveness with which she entraps Mercer, and the unwillingness to consider any mitigation, indicate a basic ruthlessness and disdain not only for people but for jounralistic integrity. Such is local news, sadly. But the astute reader will immediately sense something wrong in the sting that she uses to trap Mercer, and will already miss someone who, in other circumstances, would have been the quintessential Coben hero. Tynes never finds herself in a situation as desperate as Mercer's was, though she does have the tables turned on her by the real villain. This is also the most chilling part of Coben's book, because he demonstrates the ease with which a reputation, and a life, can be ruined in today's cyberspace, and turns Tynes into his heroine.

I do have a couple of small quibbles. Because suburban New Jersey is a small world, characters recur, including cops and the lawyer Hester Crimstein, whose nickname ought to be 'crimescene', no? But when Win from the Myron Bolitar series does, it is to serve the same sort of deus ex machina function he sometimes did for Myron, and it seems too much of a shortcut. He remains an entertainly cold character, however. Coben is also a master of twists, and Caught contains one huge one which I have to confess, if not brag, I anticipated from the start, though I had almost talked myself out of it before Harlan finally sprung it. If it takes you by surprise, you'll give this book five stars, even if it doesn't you'll still give it four, as I did. And read it in one sitting, as I also did, which is something being father of a six year old in the suburbs rarely lets me do.

Caught by Harlan Coben
Orion Books, £18.99
ISBN 978409112495

Note: this review will also appear at

No comments :