Hold Tight by Harlan Coben is just out in paperback in the UK (£3.49 in some retailers); of course I bought a copy on publication day. Coben's books are always edge-of-seat, one-sitting reads, and Hold Tight is no exception.
The "hook" is the apparently unconnected killing of two women, partly connected with some information they know, but partly for unknown reasons. Loren Muse, a state investigator whom we have met in previous Coben books, takes on the case while dealing with a pesky outburst of sexism in the workplace on the side.
Interwoven with these dramatic events is the story of a typical Coben family - father Mike is an ex-hockey player, now a transplant surgeon; mother Tia is a lawyer working for Hester Crimstein, a recurring minor yet dominant character in other novels by this author; their two children are Adam and his young sister Jill. Adam is 16 and has become so moody and secretive that his parents decide at the novel's start to put spyware on his computer so they can track his online activity - not least because a friend of his from school has recently died in a drug-related incident.
Coben is superb at describing the urban domestic scene, pulling the reader into his world of pushy parents, little leagues, carpools, shopping malls and the New Jersey dream, tinged with Sopranos. A particularly strong, sustained theme is the claustrophobic atmosphere created by various Internet applications. Usually thought of as providing access to a wide world, Coben skewers so accurately ways in which an individual's ability to access and filter information, and keep it private, has challenged family life and values. He sticks to describing known technologies, and provides several examples of pertinent ethical dilemmas and chillingly cruel online evilness - whether an anxious parent tracking his child using mobile GPS; school students setting up cruel, bullying websites about a young girl with some faint facial hair; or the empty "tributes" to a dead boy that cause even more grief to his grieving mother.
The book cracks on at a furious pace, with many subplots being juggled and the reader on the edge of the seat wondering how Loren's investigation is going to connect with Mike's family problems, and how the numerous, apparently disparate events are going to be tied together. It is hard to review a book like this one without providing spoilers, but I do think the emphasis in the book's publicity (tagline: "how far would you go to protect your child?") is a bit of a red herring.
Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case with Coben, the ending is a throwaway mess. Apart from the weak character of Mo, Mike's best friend, who seems to be present in the book for one reason only (he works something out at the end that affects one of the dramatic climaxes), the whole interconnected network of crimes and motives goes just too far, when we finally discover all the previously hidden relationships and secrets. One shocking revelation in a book has impact, two can be pretty cool, but at some point one cannot have too many connections and retain credibility. In particular, the second woman's death is barely explained and based on what we have been told about her character, does not fit in; and Loren's involvement peters out. The disappointing ending is such a pity because the rest of the book is a smoothly icy read, as one lurches around the zig-zags of the plot, skating wildly over the murky depths beneath.