Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Crime Fiction Alphabet: H is for Harlan Coben

Continuing the fun series started by fellow Anzac book blogger Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, where each week bloggers from around the world write about a notable crime fiction novel or author (first name or surname) starting with a particular letter of the alphabet, this week is the turn of "H".

I was mulling over a few different authors and books that would make good "H" posts, and decided, in honour of his recent success winning the public vote for the the first-ever Bestseller Dagger at the 2009 Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards, I would focus on bestselling American thriller writer Harlan Coben. In response to his Dagger win, Coben was reported as saying: "I try to write books which are really compelling – that you'd take on vacation and rather than going out, you'd read in your hotel room because you had to find out what happened. Hopefully that's what readers are responding to."

New Jersey native Harlan Coben is in fact no stranger to winning awards - since he published his third book DEAL BREAKER (the first Myron Bolitar novel) in 1995, he has racked up an impressive trophy cabinet. He is reportedly the first writer to have won an Edgar Award, a Shamus Award, and an Anthony Award (which some consider the top three US crime writing awards). He has also won France's Le Grand Prix des Lectrices de Elle for fiction award (for his standalone TELL NO ONE), amongst other award wins, nominations, and accolades.

Born and raised in New Jersey (he still lives in the state today, with his wife and four children), it was while Coben was studying political science at college that he realised he wanted to be a writer. Interestingly, at that time he was a member of the Psi Upsilon fraternity at Amherst College, and amongst his fraternity brothers was another young man who would also go on (many years later) to become a well-known thriller; Dan Brown.

After college, Coben worked in the travel industry while writing his first novels: PLAY DEAD (1990), a romantic suspense novel, and MIRACLE CURE (1991), a medical thriller. Although he became a published author in his late 20s, it wasn't until this third novel, DEALBREAKER, several years later that Coben really started getting some traction.

DEALBREAKER introduced Coben's popular recurring hero, sports agent and sometimes private investigator Myron Bolitar. In the novel, Bolitar is poised on the edge of the big time, and so is his prized client, rookie quarterback Christian Steele. But when Steele gets a phone call from a former girlfriend, a woman who everyone, including the police, believes is dead, the deal starts to go sour. Bolitar is plunged into a baffling mystery of sex and blackmail. Trying to unravel the truth about a family's tragedy, a woman's secret and a man's lies, he is up against the dark side of his business - 'where image and talent make you rich, but the truth can get you killed.'

DEALBREAKER was the 'breakthrough' novel for Coben, garnering him an Edgar Award nomination and an Anthony Award win. It is has recently been annouced that it is in the process of being made into a film (with a 2011 release date).

From there, Coben hit his writing stride, and has since published a new novel every year (with two Bolitar novels in 1996). Between 1995-2000 he wrote seven consecutive novels starring the sports agent-cum-part-time PI, the third of which, FADE AWAY, won an Edgar Award and a Shamus Award. In FADE AWAY, Bolitar is approached to find Greg Downing. He shares a history with Downing; they were rivals both in sport and for the affection of one woman. Bolitar finds blood in Downing's basement, and then the body of a woman - and suddenly he is on a path unravelling the strange violent world of a national hero gone wrong, as well as his own past.

The popular character of Bolitar is a former star college basketball player whose knee injury prevented him from turning pro, so he turned to Harvard Law School and a second career as a big shot sports agent. Unfortunately, his clients seem to habitually get into peculiar jams. These early Bolitar novels all take place in the sports world, offering something of a behind-the-scenes look at some of the seedier aspects of that world. The characters popularity can be seen in the fact that Florida sports journalist Gary Shelton even wrote an 'inteview' with Bolitar for the St Petersburg Times in 2000. You can read that interview here.

Coben's Bolitar novels also often entwined the (well-hidden) past and the present - a trait that has become something of a characteristic of Coben's thriller writing (along with his penchant for twisting plots), perhaps even moreso with his later standalones.

In 2001 Coben released his first stand-alone thriller, TELL NO ONE, which took Coben to another level, sales and notoriety-wise, becoming an international bestseller. It becme the most-decorated thriller of that year, nominated for an Edgar, an Anthony, a Macavity, a Nero, and a Barry; winner of the Audie Award for Best Audio Mystery/Suspense Book (read by Steven Weber); and a #1 hardcover book on the Book Sense 76 list. In France, TELL NO ONE (NE LE DIS A PERSONE) won Le Grand Prix des Lectrices de Elle for fiction. You can read more about TELL NO ONE, including an extract, here. French film director Guillaume Canet adapted the book into an award-winning French thriller, Ne le dis à personne in 2006.

Since the turn of the millennium, Coben has largely concentrated on standalone thrillers, although he briefly returned to Bolitar with PROMISE ME (2006) and this year's LONG LOST (2009). You can read my review of LONG LOST here.

Harlan Coben has more than 47 millions books in print worldwide - his novels have been published in 39 languages, and have been number one bestsellers in over a dozen countries. His most recent releases, LONG LOST and HOLD TIGHT, both debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list and lists around the world. And of course he recently won the inaugural Bestseller Dagger.

Without a doubt, Harlan Coben is now one of the biggest names in modern thriller writing. His next book, the standalone CAUGHT, is scheduled for publication in March 2010.

What do you think of Harlan Coben? Have you read any of his books, either the Bolitar series or his acclaimed standalones? Do you like the mix of past and present, plot twist and fast-paced action? Thoughts and comments welcome.


  1. Craig - Thanks for featuring Coben. One of the things I like best about your contributions to this meme is the interesting background information you give on the authors. For instance, I had no idea Coben and Dan Brown were fraternity brothers. I appreciate all of this interesting info.

  2. Many thanks for this post Craig. I was wondering who you would choose. Very comprehensive as usual.

  3. Coben is a very popular author in India. My brother has a lot of his books. I am yet to read him though.

    Here is my Crime Fiction Alphabet: H post!

  4. Great post, Craig! I featured this author in "C", but simply recycled an old review of one of his books (I think). I love Coben and have read all of his novels - or rather, I thought I had until I read your post. I had not previously heard of the first two, or read them, so thanks for that info.
    I think all Coben's books are great, but his Myron Bolitar books have lapsed a bit into formula recently - for example the character of Win has become mechanical, and he's lost the aura of menace and psychopathy that made him interesting in the earlier books, and just become someone who appears when convenient for the plot (usually to help Myron for some reason) and then disappears.
    I do like Coben's stand-alones, very much. I particularly like the way that he has the same relatively minor characters appear in different books, sometimes as major, sometimes as minor, characters.

    One thing I would say about Coben's standalones is that the "hook" and the incredible tension he sustains throughout the novels almost always leads to a disappointing, or even totally unbelievable, deonouement. But, I keep coming back for more!

    The French movie of Tell No One is superb. One of those rare examples of a movie being better than the book (it is changed quite a bit). I highly recommend it if you haven't seen it.