Saturday, July 14, 2012

"Stay Close" by Harlan Coben

Megan Pierce is a married mother beginning to resent her Soccer Mum lifestyle. She used to be a wild party girl and stripper and wants to revisit what she used to have (she called herself Cassie back then). She gets her chance when new information comes to light regarding the disappearance seventeen years ago of Stewart Green. She used to date Stewart despite the fact he was married, but he was violent and abusive towards her. The last time she saw him she thought he was dead, so she took off, changed her name and created a new life for herself, in case the police think she murdered him. She decides to re-emerge when she is contacted by Lorraine, a friend from her old life, who believes she has seen Stewart and he is, in fact, alive and well.

This news excites Detective Broome, as he has never been able to let Stewart's disappearance go. He believes that Stewart's disappearance is linked to the recent disappearance of Carlton Flynn, not to mention other men who have gone missing throughout the years, all close to the same date. With Megan unable to confirm whether Stewart was dead when she last saw him, the possibility increases that he could still be alive.

Also thrown into the mix is Ray Levine, who used to be a highly-regarded photojournalist until the night he also saw Stewart's body and Megan (or Cassie as he knew her) disappeared from his life. Now his life is in ruins - he drinks too much and now poses as a paparazzo for those who aren't famous but wish to pretend they are. He managed to take a photo of Carlton before he disappeared, so he anonymously sends the picture to the police. When it is noticed that Carlton and Stewart both went missing on the same date in the same place, it further connects the cases.

Del Flynn is Carlton Flynn's father and is distraught at the disappearance of his son. In order to find answers that the police can't, he hires a pair of total psychopaths dubbed Ken and Barbie to find the truth. They are happy to torture people for answers, and aren't afraid to bump off anybody who might identify them. Which person is innocent? Which person is guilty? Which person is about to fatally collide with Ken and Barbie? Secrets are exposed as the seventeen-year-old cold case gets closer to being solved.

Harlan Coben has finally hit rock bottom with this clunker. Look at all that exposition just to describe the set-up to an otherwise simple story. The signs were there with "Caught" that the author who could once be relied upon to deliver a taut, tightly-paced thriller was close to running on auto-pilot. This one feels as if he wrote it while he was asleep. There's not a lot of mystery or suspense to be found, the characters are cliched and their motivations both murky and lacking conviction. What on Earth makes Megan want to abandon a loving husband and children to revisit a past where she was a stripper and abused by a possessive boyfriend? Then again, her connection to Stewart is ill-defined. Was she dating him? Or was she dating Ray? She keeps claiming Ray was the love of her life. So what was she doing with Stewart? It didn't exactly make me warm to her.

Ray fares even worse. What a wet blanket. Who wants to spend time with a loser who sits around and feels sorry for himself? It's been seventeen years, you douche. Move on! The book offers a reason for his sadsackery, but it's quite ludicrous. The dialogue between him and Megan when they finally reunite is excruciating. Even the worst romance author would cringe at the exchanges between the two. Detective Broome is also something of a sadsack. It's a bit of a worry that the most undeveloped main character is the most sympathetic. Yet his motivation for being obsessed with the case doesn't ring true. From all accounts, Stewart Green was a violent jerk. You get the feeling Broome's obsession has more to do with plot convenience than bringing closure to Green's wife, Sarah.

The subplot involving Ken and Barbie is only around to bring a sense of forced danger to the proceedings. Without them, this tale would simply involve the solving of a cold case that brings no threat to any character and carries no urgency. Their presence is a cheap, transparent ploy to add some suspense (and a bit of gratuitous violence) to a story that would otherwise have none. I mean, Del Flynn could easily have hired a private detective to find out what happened to his son. Why does he hire a couple of psycho? How did he even know them? It's truly pathetic. Finally, Coben falls back on his old favourite theme of "I would do anything for my children. They are precious, parenthood goes so quickly" and blah, blah, blah. He's now just flogging the same old dead horse.

I can't believe this drivel came from the author of such thriller classics as "Gone For Good" and "Tell No One". Apparently Coben has made a foray into teen fiction with "Shelter". If this basic, connect-the-dots plotting is any indication, he should probably stay there, though I doubt even teenagers would be fooled by the tired tricks he is pulling out of his hat. Stay far away from this one.

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