Reviewer Steve Moore: Steve is a full-time writer and ex-scientist. Besides his many technical publications, he has written six sci-fi thrillers (one a novel for young adults), many short stories, and frequent comments on writing and the digital revolution in publishing. His interests also include physics, mathematics, genetics, robotics, forensics, and scientific ethics. Follow Here for his WEBSITE.
Author: Harlan Coben
Suburban America has its own subculture. People move there to “live the dream,” as one of Mr. Coben’s characters states, and they become engrossed in the safe minutia of their lives—family, friends, their 2.5-kids’ schools and sports, comfy bungalows with their manicured lawns, two or more late-model cars, and both parents working to pay for the dream. They become so engrossed that when adversity rears its ugly head, lives are ripped apart—sometimes slowly, other times so fast that it leaves their heads spinning.
These are the themes of this new novel by fellow NJ writer Harlan Coben—for people who love labels, it could be called a thriller/mystery (emphasis on the first, but many elements of the second). I’m not sure I like The Stranger, but I find it interesting, often entertaining, and certainly thought-provoking, although it doesn’t treat any real world-shaking issues (cybercrime is so ubiquitous it’s a wee bit boring). The writer is still a work in progress (aren’t we all?), but he puts together a tale here that takes him far beyond my reading of his first books. He’s still a bit challenged by dialog and his overuse of strings of adjectives, but his fans will overlook all the small issues and get on with the tale (I did, because I’m one of his fans).
Here’s a synopsis: Hubby Adam Price and wifey Corinne are living the American dream in the northern NJ burbs. Adam is a lawyer with an office in Paramus—lots of modern, glitzy corporate buildings there to serve as models—and Corinne is a teacher in their hometown Cedarfield (there’s no such town, but the surroundings are real enough—the town’s a typical, upscale enclave). Corinne’s family fell into hard times and had to leave the suburban paradise—she couldn’t wait to return and steered hubby there when they looked for a house to settle into and live the dream.
Over the years and after two boys, Corinne’s become a lacrosse mom, not a soccer mom, but Adam has to substitute for her when the kids A and B lacrosse teams are chosen (eerily reminiscent of the NFL draft—parents take youth sports far too seriously) because she’s off to a teacher’s convention in Atlantic City (yes, they do that it in NJ—like many other places, kids only go to school half a year, and teachers and administrators have days and summers off to prepare and schmooze at recalibration meetings, even if they often teach the same classes and do the same thing year after year). At the kids’ draft, a stranger approaches Alan at the American Legion’s bar and tells him a little secret about his wife.
Adam confronts his wife, and she takes off, texting him she needs time to mull things over. Thus begins Alan’s spin down into the mental maelstrom. It’s a bit slow-going at first, so the reader needs to be patient. 50% of the book is required to get into what’s really happening. That isn’t a bad thing because it allows the development of that “living the dream” theme and setting up the fall back to brutal reality. Some readers won’t like the latter because it will hit too close to home. Others will take it as a warning that living complacent, 9-to-5 lives can make adversity seem like slamming against a bridge abutment after being hit by a semi on the NJ Turnpike. I don’t want to paint Mr. Coben as a suburban philosopher as some critics do, although there’s a lot of thought-provoking prose; he’s just a damn good storyteller and the philosophy, as with all good storytellers, comes for free…maybe: TANSTAFL.
Surfing for dirt on people on the internet isn’t new, of course. People tend to ignore the warning that whatever they do on the internet can be seen by the world. Revenge porn, nude pics, the Silk Road, suburban call-girls online, and even scandalous words are fair game for lurkers, and here they’re all fair game for blackmailers. In this sense, Mr. Coben did his homework—the possibilities he considers are “ripped from today’s headlines” (just a few days before I started writing this review, there was an article in the NY Times about that “new trend,” revenge porn—some creep’s now going on trial right now for running a blackmailing site; oops! guess I won’t be on that jury). To avoid spoilers, let me just say that the author offers some interesting twists on these themes that involve a wide range of interesting characters, including a desperate ex-cop with a very sick kid who lost his job because of excessive force applied to a perp (another current theme).
About halfway into your reading, things become hectic, so hold on to your easy chair. Things aren’t what they seem, so much so that I felt a bit scammed, because there didn’t seem to be enough clues in that first half. But we’re in Adam’s POV most of the book, and this do-gooder lawyer (saving another old cop from losing his house is a side story) is too often clueless. In the second half, though, the author starts jumping into other characters’ POVs, so the reader begins to understand more about what’s going on, but the twists keep coming right up to the denouement. I found almost all the characters disappointing, including the protagonist—not much to admire about any of them. The Ohio police chief was a refreshing exception. By the end of the book, I wanted to see more of her. She appears in that second half because one of her best friends has been murdered. She ignores the pecking order back in Ohio to go after her killer.
Adam and Corinne’s kids are also an exception. Call it the innocence of youth, or just a hint that the next generation will go beyond the “living the dream” syndrome to return to that caring spirit that made the sixties in America so exciting. These kids are techno-savvy (an important plot element), love their parents while recognizing their foibles, and survive well the mental traumas of their young lives. They like their sports, but don’t live vicariously via sport successes like their parents. There’s hope for them. I wonder about the parents. Where the police chief is a refreshingly 3D character, though, the kids are a bit two-dimensional and stereotyped. I’m going with the chief and not the kids—and especially not Adam, who is more a victim than a protagonist.
There are some interesting turns of phrase. The author isn’t into a lot of quirky similes or metaphors—quips and put-downs by perps, victims, and detectives are replaced by more subtle words. For example, Cedarfield, Adam’s hometown, “…felt like a shampoo-rinse-repeat existence….” “The wine tasted like fish ass.” (I’m not sure what that means exactly, but it doesn’t sound pleasant.) “...bright blue eyes just south of sane.” (I don’t know if there’s a correlation between blue eyes and insanity—I doubt it.) “If you judge the world by Facebook, you wonder why so many people take Prozac”: I concur with the author’s observation that people try to make themselves look good on that social website—on most social websites, in fact. (Many times Facebook reminds me of that scene at the races in My Fair Lady.)
There are some gaffes too that made me smile (at least, I call them that): “He had the Cro-Magnon brow”? I’m sure the author meant Neanderthal (most of us are descendants of Cro-Magnons, so hinting someone is a Neanderthal is a good insult, while calling them Cro-Magnon is just calling them a modern homo sapien)—maybe a bit more editing is required? I question some of the driving times too. NJ commuting, with its packed roads and crazy drivers, is hell for anyone who leaves his or her little suburban enclave to venture out on the highways (not as bad as Boston with its 18th century cowpath-roads, but close). I’ve found that my GPS can’t really estimate travel times, though, so I’ll give Mr. Coben a pass on this one.
One final point and caveat emptor: you’d think that for $11.99, you’d have a better formatted ebook. All paragraph indents were missing in my copy, words were often joined together (I thought at first it was a new style twist), line breaks between speakers’ dialogs were often non-existent, and THE STRANGER and HARLAN COBEN often appeared in the middle of the prose (probably a left-over header or footer?)—all easily corrected but all very confusing. I’d say the cover’s a wee bit el cheapo too. The publisher is doing Mr. Coben no favors here, but I’ll hasten to add the author probably has no control over any of this, or even wants to. Still, this is a good read, if you want to spend the money.