Tuesday, May 08, 2012

'Stay Close' Is Far From Awful, but Doesn't Approach Coben's Best

Book Review

Stay Close
by Harlan Coben
now in hardcover

I can't judge a book by it's cover, or so an adage long ago admonished, but I often wonder about the veracity of judging a book by how long it takes me to read.

I realize that quality literature is frequently defined by depth, density, insight and originality that doesn't always dovetail with the expedient page-turning thrills that a great suspense novel can offer.

But as someone who likes books far more than I acutely enjoy reading many of them, it seems that though many of the brand name suspense novelists who routinely top New York Times Best Seller list aren't often acclaimed as brilliant authors, a certain amount of success must be equated with writing books that people can't wait to read...and never want to put down.

Over the past decade, Harlan Coben has become my favorite author. Not because he writes on the legendary level of Twain, Dickens, Hemingway or whomever else I should extol, but because I've read 20 of his novels--quickly--and always look forward to reading the next one.

Coben's novels almost always take place in New Jersey or somewhere close by. Most of his early ones featured the recurring character of Myron Bolitar, a basketball star turned sports agent who solves mysteries with the assistance of a preppy badass named Win and other regulars. Coben still pens Myron mysteries, but intersperses them with stand-alone books, which typically feature a main character trying to resolve the disappearance of a loved one.

Other authors, including Linwood Barclay, write mysteries in a pretty similar milieu, but what makes Coben my favorite is the wit and wisdom he often tangentially tosses in, whether about modern society, trends and technology, suburban culture, etc. Dear to my heart, he'll often cite Springsteen or reference Howard Stern or otherwise touch upon something with which I can identify.

That he's done so, engagingly, over 22 novels--the only ones I've yet to read are one targeting young adults and a recently re-released, long out-of-print early work--is pretty impressive. Coben is one of those guys who churns out a new bestseller every year, and the artistic ability required to do so must be much, much harder than the regard often bestowed.

So this review of his latest, Stay Close, is meant as much to praise him for writing yet another book I've enjoyed reading in less than a week, as it is to note that it took me a bit longer than some others and didn't seem quite as fun. Which, given my pondering above, may suggest some greater qualitative heft.

Perhaps. But I suspect that it's just missing a touch of anticipatory oomph.

I've noted that Stay Close is going to be made into a movie--though many Coben novels would seem to lend themselves to the screen, only Tell No One has been adapted so far, and in French at that--and there's certainly enough here that can lend itself to a pretty good one.

And if like me, you're a Coben devotee who--regardless what anyone opines--is planning to read Stay Close as soon as your library hold pickup notice hits your inbox, I'm not here to dissuade you. There's more than enough of what Harlan does well here to make it worth your while.

But if I'm here to pretend that this blog might turn the uninitiated onto things they might enjoy, for those who have never read a Harlan Coben novel, Stay Close isn't where I suggest your exploration should begin.

I can't clearly explain why, except to say that unlike many of his books, this one didn't make me stay up reading into the wee hours. I was intrigued enough to want to reach the conclusion, and was a bit surprised by the twist at the end, but I just didn't care all that much about what took place, or even the proverbial "whodunit."

There was nothing specifically off-putting about the tale of a broken-down photojournalist, former stripper turned soccer mom and how their shared past has complicated the present. On paper--or whatever the Kindle equivalent of a book jacket may be--the scenario sounds as ripe with possible tension as any Coben set-up, but using whatever metaphor one prefers for a great thriller--rollercoaster, runaway train, racecar--Stay Close just never went into overdrive for me.

If you're tastes run similar to mine, Harlan Coben is an author you should know about, but start with any of the Myron Bolitar books--you may want to go in order, though it's not mandatory--or stand-alones like Tell No One, Gone For Good, No Second Chance, Hold Tight or Caught, which I reviewed here.

Stay Close doesn't stray so far as be avoided by fans, or anyone seeking a good quick read, but shows that even for outstanding practitioners, writing a truly mesmerizing thriller isn't automatic. This isn't Coben's best book, by some distance, but actually makes me appreciate what he does a bit more.

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