Good-guy mystery writer

By Breck Longstreth

Harlan Coben is the Chubby Checker of plot twists.

He's also the first author to win all three of the top awards for mystery writers - the Edgar, the Shamus and the Anthony.

I first heard of Coben when I read an interview with him in Amherst, my daughter's college alumni magazine, which still seems to show up in my mailbox almost a decade after her graduation. He sounded like a great guy -- married to his college sweetheart, a pediatrician; father of four; former college basketball star. The author of that piece, Karen Fox, wrote: ``?his male characters are always smitten, to their good or detriment, with a love who entered their lives young. These women are dynamic, smart, sexy, sometimes flawed -- and always dramatically independent. `I have to write about women that way,' Coben says. `It's what I know.'''

Intrigued, but not wanting to invest too much money, I went to the bookstore and picked up a Coben paperback, Tell No One, published in 2001. It's probably worth mentioning here that I'm only a sporadic reader of mysteries. I've found that when they're good, I'm hooked. But sometimes I can figure out the denouement, or at least who did it, before I get to the end, and that's annoying. This doesn't speak to any brilliant deductive reasoning on my part, but to the inexpertness of many mystery writers, who leave too many clues in plain sight.

That's not the case with Coben, whose plots are so intricate and whose characters are so enmeshed that it's hard to figure anything out ahead of time. In ``Tell No One,'' pediatrician David Beck has lived in sorrow for eight years after his wife's murder, when one day a message appears on his computer. It's a signal that only his wife could have sent. Is she still alive?

I liked Coben's writing, which smacks of Hemingway, with its staccato delivery -- but without the heavy literary component. His character descriptions are succinct, but vivid. ``The man in front of him looked to be in his forties. He was big and fat with a belly that battled against the buttons of his dress shirt and, in at least one place, won. His tie was loosened and he had the worst comb-over imaginable -- eight braided strands pulled ear to ear and greased against the dome. The man's features were soft, his chin sinking into folds of flab.''

I powered through ``Tell No One'' and two days later sprung for Coben's most recent book, still in hardback: The Innocent. This time, it's not an e-mail message, but a photo on a camera phone that starts the mystery. Matt Hunter, who as a college student killed another kid at a drunken fraternity party, served four years in prison for his crime. That experience changes him forever, but he's managed to put his life together with the help of his beautiful, pregnant wife, Olivia. When he receives a photo of her in a compromising position with another man, the mystery begins.

In researching Coben for this review, I checked out his Web site, where he writes: ``The themes I love best involve family -- the ties and bonds we all know. I enjoy stories where the past reverberates and sends shock waves to the present. I enjoy novels about old secrets and missing people who may still be alive, about loss, about redemption.''

Coben has been turning out a book a year since about 1995. Seven of these, written from 1995-2001, hinge on a Jewish detective named Myron Bolitar, described as ``a former basketball star turned hotheaded sports agent.'' Bolitar is also tenderhearted, loves his parents and yearns for a wife and children. His best friend, Win, is a blue-blood preppy psycho with a violent streak. Coben's Myron Bolitar mysteries have proved so popular that Columbia Pictures has optioned the series, and is making a movie of the first book, Deal Breaker.

Apparently Coben fans have been clamoring for more of Myron Bolitar, since the last five of Coben's books have been stand-alones. Presumably to placate his readers, Coben includes a 14-page short story, ``The Rise and Fall of Super D,'' that features Bolitar at the end of ``The Innocent.'' Even in this short amount of space, he's able to throw in a twist and surprise the reader.

Killer of a story

If you're a reader of mysteries and love a twist, I hope you didn't miss John Colapinto's About the Author, published in 2002.

Cal Cunningham aspires to be a writer, but is saddled with a serious case of writer's block. Instead, he spends a lot of time as a man-about-town, chasing women, and relates his exploits to his roommate, Stewart Church. When Church is killed in an accident, Cunningham finds that Church has written the book that Cunningham hasn't been able to. Cunningham gets the book published under his own name, and that's when the plot thickens with blackmail and murder.

--Breck Longstreth

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