Harlan Coben’s Home (Dutton, Sept.), his 11th Myron Bolitar novel, exemplifies two of the things that have made the mega-bestselling author stand out from the pack–he’s a master storyteller, able to engage a reader’s interest and emotions from the outset, and, unlike most other successful writers in the genre, he has made missing person cases–not desperate races to foil the latest apocalyptic terror plot, or a cat and mouse game with a serial killer–the focal point of his work.
Those qualities have also netted Coben critical acclaim: his books have won multiple awards, including an Edgar, an Anthony, a Barry, a Shamus, and the Spanish RBA International Prize for Crime Writing (which came with 125,000 euros in prize money).
Coben is best-known for his major series lead, Myron Bolitar, a former star basketball player turned sports agent and troubleshooter, who returns in Home in a story that involves Bolitar in the search for two boys, Patrick Moore and Rhys Baldwin, who were kidnapped a decade earlier from the Baldwin’s suburban New Jersey house. Like those in many of Coben’s other books, the characters are driven by the possibility of hope and redemption—as the parents of the boys, who were both just six when they vanished, are given reason to believe that there could still be a happy ending, after a chance sighting of Patrick. The path to the truth about the children’s whereabouts is a typically nonlinear one, but the complex plot twists, although clued and surprising, are secondary to a subtle examination of the continuing emotional aftershocks of the abduction.
Coben has made a deliberate choice to emphasize missing person cases, rather than murders, in his stories: “I find them more interesting than the classical mystery thrillers,” he says. “There’s always hope that the lost person could be found, as opposed to the finality of death in a whodunit.”
Bolitar, who first appeared in 1995’s Deal Breaker, began as an alter ego for Coben, albeit one with some upgrades. Coben, who was also an outstanding basketball player (his athletic achievements at Amherst College were recognized in his 2013 induction into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame), and Bolitar are the same height and size, but Coban made his protagonist “a little bit better” in a number of ways; Bolitar was drafted by the Boston Celtics (although a horrific injury in a preseason game ended his pro career prematurely, giving him a need for redemption in his life), and he’s also “funnier” than Coben who found his character developing in unexpected ways. He chose the first name Myron for Bolitar because he wanted to give a “cool guy” a stereotypically-nerdy name, but as the series evolved, Coben was surprised to find Bolitar ending up as “goofier and less cool.”
The differences, however, are more than superficial: while Coben lost his parents when they were relatively young, Bolitar has a close connection with his. Home includes small, moving scenes of Bolitar trying to adjust to his parents’ aging, and his mother’s struggles with Parkinson’s. Coben’s depiction of Bolitar’s feelings are poignant; Bolitar has the gift of loving parents in middle age, and of a comfortable relationship with them. “There was no confusion, no remorse, no resentment, no hidden rage, no blame. He loved them. He loved with no buts or stipulations.”
Eight years working a “real job” in his grandfather’s travel agency preceded Coben’s writing success and gave him experience dealing with people in stressful circumstances, people who were out of their element, much like the figures in his novels. But it’s not a time of his life that he misses, and it serves now to emphasize how “awesome” it is for him to write full-time. “I didn’t like the travel agency job. My fear that I’d have to return to something like that drives my writing. I’m just not good at doing anything else.”
For Coben fans, 2016 is not just noteworthy for the return of Myron Bolitar after five years; Coben has begun story-telling in a different medium. In April, Britain’s Sky TV began broadcasting The Five, a serial drama whose premise will feel familiar to Coben’s devotees; the plot centers on a 12-year-old boy whose younger brother has vanished, and his three friends. The cold case becomes a hot one two decades later when the missing child’s DNA is found at a crime scene.
Coben says he loved working in television as a change of pace after writing his “29th or 20th book. I can’t recall how many I’ve done, off-hand. I wasn’t a math major in college,” he jokes. He enjoyed collaborating with talented people in making the series happen, a very different experience from sitting alone in a room, writing. The ten episode series, which does not yet have an American distributor, was so successful that a second series, The Four, billed as “a standalone, character-driven thriller that tells the chilling story of an idyllic family community irrevocably shattered by secrets, lies, suspicions and misguided trust,” has begun production.
Ben Sevier, Coben’s editor, highlights Coben’s choice of subject matter as the secret to his success. “I think one of Harlan’s greatest talents is tapping into emotion—his plots and characters are always rooted in deep and relatable human emotion: the love for your family, your children, your oldest friend, and how deep the loss of those people would feel. That gives his books a kind of relatability that I think is unique to Harlan—his thrillers almost always revolve around regular people and it is not difficult for us to place ourselves in their shoes. His plots are happening where we live, to people just like us.” For Sevier, his biggest challenge is separating his role as editor from his status as a fan. “While reading Coben, it’s very easy for me to forget that I’m supposed to be working; I get caught up in the action of the story and look up 50 pages later and realize I’ve forgotten to make any notes.”