If I'm counting right, this is Harlan Coben's 28th novel, and he has been writing thrillers longer than his Myron Bolitar series, thrillers marked by their everyday settings and their consistent twists of plot and character which have made them so successful. Fool Me Once is a perfect example of what makes his work so appealing, and the title is a pretty good warning of what the reader can expect from the author, yet it's also a tale whose emotional load is weighted carefully and one with something much darker than a shooting behind it.
The story begins at the funeral of Maya Burkett's husband Joe, shot by would-be muggers as the two of them walked in Central Park. Maya has an uneasy relationship with the Burkett family, extremely wealthy and aloof. She never thinks of herself as a Burkett; she's Maya Stern, who, as a helicopter pilot in Iraq took part in a rescue mission that resulted in the killing of civilians. She was identified on a whistle-blowing website, and took an honourable discharge from the Army, but she both misses the service and is haunted by nightmares of that fatal day. To make things worse, Maya's sister Claire was murdered, while Maya was deployed in the Middle East. Now she's determined to solve her husband's murder, but, as her widowed brother-in-law reminds her: death seems to follow her around.
Then, on a security camera hidden in a picture frame, Maya sees Joe playing with their daughter. From this beginning Coben weaves a story that has a number of familiar tropes: misadventures in prep school, electronic surveillance, protective wealthy families using their influence, but links them together is some surprising ways. Often just when you think you've caught up to the plot, it shifts, but part of his genius is that you may well have been right, but still not quite there. There are also the everyday touches familiar from Coben's work, the way pressures of child care, or a kid's bullying soccer coach, impact on a character's ability to deal with the increased stress of trying to solve a murder.
When you're writing a story full of twists, nothing is ever the way it seems, and Coben is brilliant in the way he reminds you of this with small references to ambiguities, to yin and yang, things like the opposite interpretations of the Second Amendment, to a school overlooking a graveyard, or receiving lines at weddings and funerals. Reminders that things have different meanings at different times.
I won't give away any spoilers, but the climax of the story not only ties things together, but does it in a way that is chilling and maybe darker than anything I've read from Coben. There is a coda, some of which was necessary, but some of which to my mind goes a little too far in the opposite direction of the brilliant finish. With the success of the film of Tell No One I'm always amazed more Coben isn't committed to film—this one I was seeing in my head is brought to a moving ending that stuns and saddens.
Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben
Century, £18.99, ISBN 9781780894195
NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)