ARCHIVE: All Caught Up with Coben


By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit March 16, 2010)

He’s the Bard of the bloody ‘Burbs — the man who knows that the skeletons are often hidden, carefully catalogued and professionally organized, in roomy walk-in closets. A man who jogs those mean streets with names like Sugarmaple Way, in a land where there’s no escape, no closure — only cul de sacs and faux finishes.

It’s been twenty years now since Jersey-bred master of mayhem Harlan Coben published his first crime novel — and fifteen since he found his groove with Deal Breaker, the first in a savvy and successful series of murder mysteries featuring sports agent (and occasional FBI “superhero”) Myron Bolitar. Think Tom Cruise as Jerry Maguire, times Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. Only lose the Cruise.

Rather than settle for the comfy niche existence of a series writer, however, the suburban dad and pediatrician’s spouse (a grade-school classmate of Governor Chris Christie and a former college contemporary of DaVinci decoder Dan Brown) formulated other plans between minivan trips to his kids’ lacrosse practice. In 2001 he penned Tell No One, a romantically charged thriller that became his hottest-selling title to date — and spurred the multiple award winner on to other “stand-alone” successes like Hold Tight, which debuted at the top of the Times bestsellers list.

Maintaining a rigorous book-a-year regimen; switching with apparent ease between the stand-alones and the Bolitars (the latest of which, last year’s Long Lost, also topped the charts from day one), the Ridgewood resident has branded himself as one of the most fervently followed practitioners of a blood-drenched and highly competitive game.

Tomorrow evening, March 18, Coben comes to the Pollak Theatre at Monmouth University as the latest guest in the school’s Visiting Writers Series, in a veritable CobenCon that sees him speaking about his work, signing copies of the newly published paperback edition of Long Lost, and presiding over a raffle in which the drooled-over swag will be advance copies of his all-new stand-alone story, Caught— a title that won’t be released to retailers until next Tuesday.

There’s also a Q&A session on tap, as well as a big-screen showing of the French-language film version of Tell No One. Directed by Guillaume Canet, and starring Francois CluzetKristin Scott Thomas and Nathalie Baye, the acclaimed 2006 “brain teasing tale” of murder, secrets, obsession and mysterious reappearances cleaned up at France’s Cesar Awards. Best of all, Thursday’s 7pm program is absolutely and not at all mysteriously free of charge.

The affable and articulate Coben remains the kind of superstar author whose kids field his incoming calls; who can often as not be interviewed in the midst of a neighborhood-errands excursion. Red Bank oRBit secured a few minutes with the only writer to have earned all three major mystery writing awards. Continue Reading for the payoff.

RED BANK oRBit: We’re speaking in advance of your event at Monmouth University, where you’ll be showing the French film of TELL NO ONE along with your signing event. Have you ever done anything like this before — and can we assume from your doing this event that you like the film; that you’re satisfied with the way they treated the source material? 

HARLAN COBEN: This is a one-time event that was set up by Monmouth. I did some appearances in France when the film first came out, then in England, and in America when it came out here in 2008…I like the film, even with the obvious changes made to the story. Mine takes place in New York and New Jersey, where the movie’s set in Paris and the outskirts.

To me, Canet kept the heart of the story. He knew that it was a love story first, and a thriller second.

Do you have an update on the American remake that was announced a while back? 

I really don’t know what’s happening with that; you know that Kathleen Kennedyoptioned it, but I can’t tell you anything more at the moment — you have to take a step away when you deal with Hollywood!

I guess I’m interested in the whole book-to-film thing because I just did an event last weekend with the mystery writer Wallace Stroby; we screened The Killing by Stanley Kubrick and talked about real life crime versus movie crime.

One of the things we talked about was how that old 1950s heist caper would be a challenge to pull off in an age where you’ve got surveillance cameras in every parking lot; everybody’s got a camera in their pocket. What strikes me about your books is how much you embrace things like webcams, social networking…they often drive your stories, whereas other writers might find it daunting to work around that sort of thing.

The new book Caught especially, deals with social networks, viral marketing. But it’s the world we live in, really — none of it is exactly what you’d call cutting edge. I write stories that are set in this world we live in, and it presents certain challenges, but a lot of cool opportunities at the same time.

Another challenge that a contemporary storyteller might face could be in a book like JUST ONE LOOK, where your plot is set off with a trip to the Fotomat, which could seem almost quaint now!

That’s right, they’re all gone! I still go to a place like Fotomat, though — I prefer to have my pictures printed for me.

So, you use what you need to drive the story — but you can’t twist the world into something it’s not. To write a story now where you’ve got a ringing telephone, with no other way to get in touch with that person — it’s just not realistic.

Still, despite the presence of cameras and communication networks, people still vanish without a trace in your stories, change their identities. In real life, as well.

What’s stunning to me is something like the Elizabeth Smart case. Here the entire world was looking for this girl for months, using all the tech at their disposal — but how about looking at the crazy homeless guy with the God complex who lives nearby?

I wanted to ask you about writing series fiction versus stand-alone novels. You’ve been very successful at both, which for some reason is not as common as you might expect. Did you, as a reader, have a preference toward either type of mystery story? Did you enjoy the authors who made a career out of doing series — Dick Francis, for example, who we lost recently?

We lost a lot of them in the past couple of years — Robert B. ParkerDonald E. Westlake. A lot of them I got to know before they died. But as far as series versus stand-alones, frankly, I love them both.

I sort of came to where I’m at now accidentally — I’d written seven novels featuring Myron Bolitar, and I guess I wanted to prove that I could be successful at something other than series books.

To me, series have a definite lifespan. When you look at an old character likeHercule Poirot, he never ages or changes; he just goes on solving crimes for decades. But with Myron, I wanted him to get older — that’s what makes him interesting to write. He aged 12, 13 years from when he first appeared in Deal Breaker.

A bigger reason to write stand-alone stories is that when I have a cool idea, I want it to go where it takes me, rather than making it work as a Myron story. Tell No Onecould not have been a Myron book, since it’s based in this love story, with a married character. Myron does not have a wife and kids, so with a lot of my books there’s a home and family sort of setting that wouldn’t work with that character.

Anyway, right now I’m really into Wendy, from Caught!

Are you thinking sequel here?

I always write with that in mind; you know that I’ve used certain characters from one book to another — I’ll bring in whatever characters that are right for certain situations.

But as for a straight sequel, well, I never know what my next move’s going to be. When I finish a book, I’m an empty vessel!