Did you know that you can hire paparazzi to follow you around, yelling personal questions and photographing you while you have your Bar Mitzvah or take someone out for a date? I didn’t, but this nadir is where Ray Levine finds himself at the start of Stay Close, Harlan Coben’s latest novel. Ray, previously an award-winning war photojournalist, has to do this demeaning job because the woman he loved, a stripper called Cassie, left him 17 years ago and he’s never recovered from the blow.
I hesitate before revealing any more of the plot of this book because it is all like this – a constant melodrama. Cassie, for example, is now called Megan and lives in suburban New Jersey, ferrying her two children to soccer practice or to parties, and sitting cosily on the sofa with her husband while he watches sports on TV. Despite her 17 years of domestic placidity, Megan still hankers after her old life. So when she receives a phone call out of the blue from one of her old associates – a call that, naturally, contains shocking news – she drops everything and heads off to her old haunts in Atlantic City.
Several other characters are introduced: a good cop, a bad cop, a lawyer, a grieving wife, a grieving father, two unusual assassins-for-hire, and so on . The novel is written in bite-size chunks of prose from their assorted points of view, each piling on the complications and keeping up the tempo. From this staccato presentation, it emerges that men have been disappearing at the rate of one a year for (as you’ve probably guessed) the past 17 years, without anyone in law enforcement noticing until now. The main area of suspicion is the Pine Barrens, a forested area outside the city made world-famous by a Sopranos episode, and no less sinister here.
Harlan Coben has written some addictive, gripping thrillers in his time: a series about Myron Bolitar, ex-basketball player turned sports agent; and exciting, standalone novels mostly set in New Jersey, such as Tell No-One and Just One Look. Recently, however, his output has seemed rather mechanical. The plot of Stay Close is very fast-moving in its constant twists and turns; had the author taken as much care over the characterisation, the end-result could have been a superior thriller. Instead, it’s hard to care about the participants or to become involved in their dilemmas. Stay Close is a book to pass the time rather than one to cancel any appointments for.