Monday 25 November 2013

Stay Close by Harlan Coben - review

Stay Close is a stand-alone best-seller by America's Harlan Coben that one laudatory review described as a "beach read". For my part, I started reading it on holiday as a bit of light entertainment while finding my way around the railway network of Northern Italy and was gripped straight away.. I've never met Coben, but I've read a number of his books over the years. He's a highly accomplished craftsman, and there's no doubt he's a highly intelligent writer. Despite the lightness of touch in his books, there's a cleverness about his work that possibly he likes to conceal, but even so, it is evident in many ways.

If I were to write a thriller myself (unlikely, but not impossible) I'd study the methods of the likes of Lee Child and Harlan Coben, because they have mastered a form that is much more difficult to handle than it looks. The late great Michael Gilbert always argued that writing thrillers was harder than writing detective stories and since he excelled at both forms, I am not about to argue the point. A great thriller, like a great pop song, demands a lot of artistry on the part of its author.

This story introduces us to Megan, a former stripper turned respectable suburban mom, a likeable cop called Broome, a washed-up photographer called Ray and a host of memorable minor characters including an unlikely but unforgettable pair of pscyho killers. When a rich man's son goes missing, a sequence of events is set in motion that brings Megan face to face with some unsavoury aspects of her secret past. One of the great strengths of the book is the humour - there are plenty of funny lines.

The plot is structured ingeniously so that the reader is distracted from seeing what is really going on. And what is that? Well, I suspected from an early stage a modern variant of one of Anthony Berkeley's favourite plot devices and this proved to be the case, but. I won't say any more as I don't want to give anything away. The book's worth reading for the plot alone, but it has more to offer than that - pace, wit and verve. My only reservation was that I felt the story was overloaded with sentimental set-piece situations - a wife on life support, a mother with Alzheimer's, a woman with cancer, and various other devices meant to tug on the heart-strings - but I bet Hollywood will love them. All the ingredients of a successful modern commercial thriller are here, and Coben mixes them with great assurance.

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