Caught by Harlan Coben
Finally, Harlan Coben has written a perfect thriller. I always enjoy reading novels by this author, though his Myron Bolitar series has become rather mechanical and is easily outclassed by his standalones. In all of Coben’s non-series books so far, though, the hook and the action are superb, but the dénouement ranges from unbelievable to massively convoluted to crashingly disappointing. No such worries with Caught. If you haven’t read this author yet and wonder why he is an international bestseller, this is the book I’d recommend you try.
The prologue of Caught is a double hook. Dan Mercer, a regular guy, lives in New Jersey coaching inner-city basketball teams and working with troubled teenagers. He receives a phone call from one of these disturbed girls asking him to come and help her. When he arrives at her house, he’s ambushed by a TV crew, who expose him as a paedophile. We then switch to the second hook, in which we meet Marcia and Ted McWaid, who live in the same suburban town and whose eldest daughter Haley vanished from her bed three months ago.
How these two stories are inter-related does become apparent, but not before plenty more mysteries and tensions enter the mix. The author’s pacing is perfect, as we see most events though the eyes of Wendy, the journalist who exposed Dan at the start of the novel, but begins to have doubts about whether she was set up. Wendy herself is a widow, her husband being killed some years previously by a drunk driver. She struggles to support herself and her son Charlie, a classmate of the missing teenager, amid sexism, careerism and the ghastly HR department of the local TV station.
Not only is the plotting great, but the book addresses social themes such as the human cost of the collapse of parts of the US economy, and is full of acute little domestic observations and wry humour – for example when Wendy notices Michele, the local bimbo-like (or is she?) TV news anchorwoman reTweeting to her followers a Tweet from someone complimenting her on her hairdo when reading the news the previous night. The internet and online social media are integral to the unfolding plotlines, as Wendy comes to see at first-hand how identities are suspect, and how easy it is for the public’s perceptions to be manipulated with the aid of a scandal-hunting, superficial media. The author is very familiar with social networking sites and it is with horrified fascination that one sees just how easy it is to destabilise lives and reputations by astute use of the medium.
None of this intrudes on the solid plot, however, which is a good, old-fashioned crime story that reaches back into the past and relies on characterisation and narrative for its appeal. You will look in vain for any salaciousness or violence – this is the best sort of thriller, in which a confident writer has trust in the exciting story he is telling and does not feel any need to throw in gross or revoltingly imaginative descriptions of torture, deaths, ordeals or anything exploitative, thankfully.
In the end, Wendy manages to get to the bottom of most of what is going on. Yet as one plot resolves, inconsistencies are thrown up in others – and to my delight, the author follows through on them all, confidently juggling all the balls in the air without resorting to unlikely explanations. All in all, Caught is a great example of a good thriller. With a few nods to some regular characters from other novels to please his loyal readers but not significantly enough to puzzle new ones, Harlan Coben does not put a foot wrong with this one.
Read other reviews of Caught:
New York Times ("a crazily hyperactive thriller")
The Independent (a review worth reading)