Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Caught" by Harlan Coben

Wendy Tynes is a reporter who likes to catch pedophiles in the act - and does so live on her TV show "Caught In The Act". Her latest target is social worker Dan Mercer. Haley McWaid is an impeccably-behaved grade-A high school student who disappears without a trace.

Three months later, Haley is still missing, with the case very much cold, while Wendy's less-than-legal shenanigans in trying to catch Dan Mercer sees a judge throwing out the charges against him. The bad publicity results in her losing her job. Nagged by a strong feeling that all is not as it seems, as well as wanting to restore her reputation, Wendy starts to dig deeper into the events that made her and her TV show target Dan in the first place. Inevitably, it opens up a whole can of worms. It seems all of Dan's college roommates have had downfalls of their own. Have they all been set up? When Dan is seemingly murdered and a link established between him and Haley McWaid, things start getting even messier.

Harlan Coben is typically one of the more reliable thriller authors out there. His novels have established their own kind of formula, but they're entertaining and usually much better than most in the genre. Unfortunately, "Caught" is his weakest, clunkiest effort so far. Coben only keeps the truth hidden because a great deal of the novel simply seems to involve Wendy tracking somebody down to talk to them, only for her interviewee to respond with something along the lines of: "I can't speak to you" or "I don't want to talk about it". It happens over and over again and just gets frustrating. Certain characters keep the truth hidden only because the plot demands it, not because it makes any sense. By the end, I didn't feel as if I'd read a thriller with honest plot twists and revelations. It was all very manufactured and artificial.

A recurring theme in many of Coben's novels is how much a parent loves their child and how far they would go to protect them. I'm sure it's a reflection of how close Coben is to his own family, and that's a great thing, but he bangs on and on about it here to the point of nauseum. Okay, you love your child! We get it! You'll do anything to protect them! We get it! Parenthood is a precious, fleeting, special thing! WE F***ING GET IT!!!! Seriously, just about every other paragraph has one of the characters blathering on about how much they love their child, or recalling a special memory, blah blah blah. There are chapters written from the point of view of Haley's mother Marcia, father Ted and sister Patricia, for the single purpose of ramming this viewpoint down our throats, as none of these characters play much a role in the proceedings other than to worry about their daughter/sister. Usually, whenever Coben writes from the point of view of a particular character, it's because they have something to contribute to the plot, or that character will become important later. Not here.

Is "Caught" an anomaly in an otherwise impressive output? Or has Coben lost his touch? It's silly to dismiss him over one bad book. This is nowhere near as awful as "Play To Kill" or "Broken". Despite the endless 'I love my kids' drivel, this travels along at a decent enough pace and I read it in two or three sittings. Yet neither do I think it's unfair to hold a strong author to higher standards than what is delivered here. There's no question I'll be picking up the next Coben offering and hoping for the best.

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