Coben finds fear in the suburbs

By Mark Kennedy

Associated Press

RIDGEWOOD, N.J. -- The village where Harlan Coben lives hardly seems the sort of place to set thrillers.

The lawns are lush and neatly trimmed. Whoops of joy can be heard from teens splashing in a lake. Children's bicycles lie in happy heaps on driveways. American flags flutter on porches.

Walking around, you half expect to come across a freshly baked apple pie cooling on a windowsill or a couple of adorable, gap-toothed kids selling lemonade.


If Ridgewood, some 25 miles northwest of New York City, seems a lot more Norman Rockwell than Norman Bates, Coben says that's the point: Where better than the suburbs to stoke white-knuckle drama?

"This is sort of the battleground of the American dream," he says in the sunny living room of the Victorian he shares with his wife, four children and two dogs.

"This is where you're supposed to be in life. You're supposed to have 2.4 kids and a house in the 'burbs and the barbecue in the yard and a two-car garage. Now your life is perfect. You build a fence so everything is protected -- and, of course, you're not."

Coben, 44, has made a career of exploring this well-manicured terrain, plumbing the depths of middle-class angst in his 13 books set in and around the Jersey suburbs.

"The suburbs is this quiet pond so a little splash can really erupt," he says, wearing the suburban dad uniform of shorts, flip-flops and a T-shirt. "I love to take a guy whose going about his life very happily and mess with him."

His plots never involve Chechen terrorists or missing nuclear codes, threats on the White House or rampaging serial killers. Instead, they turn on the familiar: A motive for murder can be as simple as trying to get your kids into the right college.

In one of his novels, a suburban mother picking up family photos finds an unfamiliar snapshot, one that soon unravels her comfortable world. In another, a man learns from his dying mother that his brother -- a long-vanished suspect in a murder -- is alive.

The premise of his latest, "Promise Me," starts simply enough: The hero, after overhearing two teens discussing drinking and driving, offers to drive them anywhere they want, no questions asked. One takes him up on the offer, and she soon disappears.


"What I always want to do when I write these books is take what you expect and turn it on its head," says Coben. "I think setting it in the normal world makes people relate more."

Apparently, people far outside New Jersey can relate -- even as far as France. Coben is awaiting the October release of a French film version of one of his books -- proof, he thinks, that the hope and anxiety of the Jersey suburbs touches nerves elsewhere.

"There's something very universal in the specific," he says. "If I was to try to write it like Anytown, U.S.A., I don't think people would relate to it."

The film, adapted from his book, "Tell No One," opens with a widower who, on the eighth anniversary of his wife's murder, is sent a cryptic e-mail telling him to watch a Webcam at a particular time. When he does, he watches her walk by.

Directed by Guillaume Canet and starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Francois Cluzet, the movie's plot has been transplanted from the New York area to in and around Paris. Even the book's bearded collie was transformed into a French Briard for the film.

"They get it," he says with a smile.

Born in Newark and raised in Livingston, Coben is a Jersey boy through-and-through, having moved only to attend Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he met his wife, Anne, a pediatrician.

After working briefly in the travel business, Coben turned to writing and soon hit upon the character of Myron Bolitar, a sports agent-turned-sleuth who became the focus of his first seven books. Approaching the series, Coben says he wanted to combine the pacing of classic, twisty thrillers with a lovable, wisecracking hero, a la Raymond Chandler.


"There are authors who focus on plot and others who specialize in characters," says Brian Tart, editor in chief and publisher at Dutton, the Penguin imprint that publishes Coben's works. "Harlan does both, which is pretty rare."

Bolitar, who like Coben stands 6-feet and 4 inches, is a suburban knight in shining armor whose big heart often gets him in loads of trouble. So much, in fact, that Coben felt he had to put Bolitar in semiretirement as he focused on five stand-alone books.

"How many catharses can one man go through?" Coben says of Bolitar. "I think series have a life expectancy. Otherwise, it becomes unrealistic.

"It's like 'Murder She Wrote,"' he adds, with a nod to Angela Lansbury's character Jessica Fletcher. "Who is still inviting this woman to dinner? The last 473 dinner parties she's gone to, someone's been murdered."

Still, Coben resurrected Bolitar for(his latest book because the premise seemed perfectly suited to his old hero.

His readers seem to agree, pushing the book to the Top 5 of best seller lists on The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Los Angeles Times and Publisher's Weekly, among others. The New York Times said "the story is tricky enough to be exciting but not tricky enough to cause whiplash."

Coben has another reason to be happy these days: Columbia Pictures has agreed to bring the Bolitar stories to the screen, though the author's past frustrations while writing a TV pilot has left him wary of Hollywood.

"My attitude is there's a barbed wire fence in the desert. I'm on one side, Hollywood's on the other," he says. "I throw the manuscript over; they throw the money over. I go, they go."

During his career, each new Coben book has sold better than the last and now appear in more than 30 languages. He has won the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Allan Poe Award, the Anthony Award from the World Mystery Conference and the Shamus Award by the Private Eye Writers of America.

"I look at myself as an old-fashioned storyteller and we're sitting around a campfire and if I bore you, you're going to take a club and whack me over the head with it," he says.

One way Coben avoids the proverbial club is by twists -- something he loves in both his writing and personal life. To put it another way: Coben may not always be a fun movie companion.

"Ten minutes into a movie, I know exactly where it's going usually. Almost never am I fooled," he says. "My mind works that way. I'm always asking the 'What if?' Half the time I come up with four or five twists that would have worked better."

Coben is currently working on his 14th book -- a non-Myron Bolitar novel this time. He writes wherever he can, though his favorite spots lately are at Starbucks or Barnes &; Noble outlets.

"I like a little white noise when I write because it makes me concentrate harder," he says. Plus, whmn he's out of the house, he won't obsessively check his rankings.

"Like I'm the only author who does that, right?" he says with a smirk.

Wherever he writes, Coben says he'll always be drawn to suspense. Within that form, he says, he can explore everything a novelist does but "not get lost in the beauty of my own genius."

"I may one day write a coming-of-age novel or something like that but if it doesn't have that page-turning quality, I just don't see how I could write it," he says. "I'm a typical male -- I flip stations and I always am terrified when I'm writing that I'm going to bore you."


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