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[2011 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel—see reviews of other 2011 Edgar noms here, or all Edgar-related posts here.]

Author: Harlan Coben

2010, Dutton

Filed under: Mystery


When I kicked off this year’s Edgar reviews, I predicted, based solely on its cover (pictured), that Caught would be “cranked-out bestseller schlock” with terrible prose. In fact, I think that’s exactly what Coben’s publishers are aiming for. Stacked up against the likes of Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly (not to mention James Patterson and all the name-brand factories), C0ben appears to be leading the field. It’s easy to see why he was plucked from among the commercial mysteries for an Edgar nomination.

On the other hand, held to the standard of his potential—which he touches only briefly, perhaps half a dozen times throughout this novel—Coben falls short. He’s a half-evolved mystery writer, having taken one step forward from the pack, but still with his back foot mired in cheap jokes, ludicrous characters, flat grabs for easy emotion, and all the other hallmarks of the mediocre bestseller.

The story follows Wendy Tynes, a small-time TV reporter who takes an interest in the case surrounding an alleged, but unconvicted, pedophile who is murdered before her eyes, and the missing girl the pedophile is thought to have abducted. Tynes is a decent character, a single mom who hates the superficiality of her job, but needs the money for her kid. She has about two and a quarter dimensions. Other characters are not nearly so blessed. For instance:

Flair Hickory, celebrity counsel for the defense, stood … Flair wore his customary gray suit with thick pink stripes, pink shirt, pink tie.

Quick, is Flair Hickory gay? (Here’s a hint: his name is Flair.) The next sentence describes Flair’s walk as “something Liberace might have done if Liberace had the courage to be really flamboyant.”

I can’t expect—evidently—that stodgy old mystery novelists will stop creating characters based on ridiculous stereotypes (let alone playing them for laughs), but it always disappoints me when they do. It breaks the continuum of the novel, and in ways that it’s never quite possible to recover from.

It’s especially a shame with Coben, because sometimes he uses such absurd details as red herrings, and he doesn’t feel the need to impregnate his characters with his own grievances against the world. For instance, a curmudgeonly police detective feels insecure around technology, but technology is still a main avenue of investigation in the case. When they find the missing girl’s iPhone with a Google Earth app on it, the detective orders a search of the area around the only location the missing girl looked up in the app. Wendy Tynes points out that a kidnap victim probably wouldn’t look up the place she was about to be killed; they alter their profile of the crime, and the plot of the novel takes a nice left turn. All of this thanks to Coben’s decent understanding of the uses of a given technology.

Unfortunately, that understanding of the realities of the world takes far too many holidays. For instance, there’s a white, middle-aged rapper named “Ten-A-Fly” (after the town in New Jersey where he lives) who’s supposed to actually be popular, despite the fact that he’s a white, middle-aged rapper, and the fact that his songs go like this:

Hotties, listen up,

You may not be in Tenafly

But Ten-A-Fly gonna be deep in you. . . .

If that’s not embarrassing enough, there’s also a guy in Ten-A-Fly’s crew named “Tennis Whites” … because he dresses in full white tennis gear (even carrying a racket) wherever he goes. Frankly, these characters would feel outlandish in a Jim Carrey movie, let alone a novel about bringing a pedophile to justice, which regularly features the thoughts of the missing girl’s anguished father.

If you can stomach the chintzy, hollow feeling of commercial mystery writing, Caught features a decent plot with several good twists (though, as usual with this kind of novel, 75% of the action comes in excruciating dialogue). But if you’re looking for a novel that’s supposed to be on an entirely different level, keep looking.

Similar reads: Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane; The Reversal, by Michael Connelly, and other commercial mystery writers. Coben is a step above those guys, but still not worth reading.

Edgar impact: Coben tries a bit of Tana French’s game—the old-crime-covered-up/web-of-friends-as-suspects, but he’s not as good as she is. This is not a contender for the award.