Last week, I went around the shops for the first time in a very long time. Probably close to the end of Feburary since I saw a book which I did not own in person. Of course, I had to do a little bit of retail therapy to celebrate such a monumental event such as “going to a shop” (didn’t think that would be a sentence that I would ever write).
Now, Harlan Coben is an author which I have been meaning to read a book from for a long time, having watched two brilliant series adaptions of his book (Netflix’s ‘The Stranger’, and CANAL’s ‘Just One Look’). I wish I could say I had deliberately sought this one out – but in truth, bookstore The Works are selling his books at £2 each, and wanting a potential new series to read, I found the oldest in his Myron Bolitar series. Honestly, the Works is really good – I’ve since bought the next 6 in the series, meaning I have the first 7 for only £12 (with deals).
Which should say somewhat a lot about how I felt about this book. Before any other contemporary readers dive in to either this or the series, I would just point out that ‘Deal Breaker’ was written in 1995, a whole 25 years ago. It’s virtually in the tone of modern classic. And as such, there is less filtered out in the writing than perhaps would be if it were written today, and indeed, some of the plot devices are more redundant for the writers of 2020. It took me a while to remember that Callback services existed – of course, I remember 1471, but in the age of mobiles….
As a result, a lot of the language used by characters and at times the author could be a little awkward, but we accept it. Indeed, Coben seems ‘woke’ at times by pointing out the undertones of what the characters say – racist or sexist – and indeed pokes at his own protagonist. Myron Bolitar is not the squeaky clean hero as in other detective series, nor indeed is he a moral superiority. He watches as his accomplice Win (who, I believe is from a posh part of New Jersey but would perfectly suit a posh Etonian accent) brutality assaults a suspect in his case – although the reasons are somewhat justified by his psychopathic sidekick, it muddies the waters. Coben has no issue with having fun at Myron’s expense – at times, Myron considers himself to be God’s gift to women, yet comes across not much more than an incel:
Myron said, ‘Sure’. Bowling her over with quick wit. What chance did she have against such sparkling repartee?
However, it is extremely good characterisation, as we see Myron noticing the more… sexualised aspects of people, especially those of women. You can imagine which body parts I mean. It’s a very strong contrast to that of Win, whom seems like a suitable substitute for Christian Bale’s American Psycho, with natural good looks, extreme narcissism, a flair for violence and a delusional air of grandeur. But enough English-Language-student analysis.
The story revolves around the disappearance of a young university student, Kathy Culver, who may be sending messages getting herself back into the present. There is a long list of suspects as to her killer, or attacker, or indeed just acting as conspirator in what transpired eighteen months before: all of whom appear to be linked almost incestuously, linked around Myron, a sports agent who is handily also trained as a lawyer. His supporting cast include Jessica, his ex who is also Kathy’s sister, Christian, a superstar American football player who is a client of Myron’s and Kathy’s boyfriend, and Esperanza, his comically passive-aggressive receptionist who used to be one of the Fabulous Ladies Of Wrestling.
Very entertaining characters aside, the plot is one of the most twisty and intriguing I have read in a long time. Plot twists erupt all the time in the multiple stories unfolding, and not a single word is wasted. Television tropes are used at times – melodramatic storming out of rooms, for example – but when combined with the very self-aware and sarcastic writing style which Coben uses, feels almost satirical. 49 chapters of pure mayhem take place, but all with a dollop of absurdity and ingenious. What springs to mind is ‘Desperate Housewives’. I certainly wouldn’t have worked out the exact way things got resolved in the end – but it didn’t feel too contrived. There was a little too much of characters saying things that they probably wouldn’t, almost like a TV show which needs to find a killer in an hour, and sometimes they didn’t speak like people did, almost like a TV show which needs to find a killer in an hour, but overall it didn’t detract too much.
I can understand why these books are popular, and there seems to be a clear pattern in Harlan Coben’s storytelling. Middle class scandal, sex, violence, blackmail and intrigue. Escapist silliness at times which also manages to touch on social issues, which although are not exactly the same today are still relevant. More than your average procedural – indeed, it is very 90s action film in vibe, and it should it ever be adapted for television, I would hope that they kept that style.