The Stranger by Harlan Coben

the strangerThe corrosive power of secrets…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Adam and Corinne are living the middle-class American Dream – nice house in suburbia, he a lawyer, she a teacher, two lovely, sporty, intelligent, well-behaved teenage sons. (Be honest, you really hope their life is about to be messed up, don’t you? Don’t worry…) One evening, a stranger approaches Adam in a bar and reveals to him a secret about Corinne that will rock their marriage to its foundations. At first, Adam is unwilling to believe it but a little online investigation convinces him of the truth of it. Now he must confront Corinne, not knowing that this will be the thing that causes their lives to spiral out of control…

When Harlan Coben is on top form, he’s my favourite thriller writer. He specialises in the ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances, and his books are always full of twists, making them compulsive reading. Though they always contain violence, it’s never graphic and he steers well away from sleaze. He’s also mastered the lost art of using adjectives that start with letters other than ‘f’, and his heroes don’t lose control of their bladders every time they get in danger. It could be argued that the books are a little old-fashioned in tone, but that works for me and, since they’re consistently best-sellers, it seems it works for a lot of other people too.

In this one, he’s not quite on his best form but it’s still very good. It gets off to a slow start, and it took me a while to warm up to Adam’s character. He seems too ready to believe the secret about his wife, and the secret didn’t seem to me to warrant quite the melodramatic reaction he has to it. However, he improves on acquaintance, becoming in the end possibly one of the most fully realised of Coben’s heroes. Once he recovers from his rather selfish response to the first shock, he begins to be more concerned about the effect on Corinne and the boys, gradually becoming more likeable so that it’s easy to be rooting for him by the time the danger reaches its peak.

The plot requires a hefty suspension of disbelief, as is par for the course for thrillers. It’s based on the use of technology and the security, or otherwise, of personal data. In the last few books, I’ve felt Coben’s main character has felt like a man of Coben’s age – mid-fifties – rather than the fictional age – usually around late thirties/early forties, and that’s the case in this book too. Adam’s ignorance of all things techie doesn’t ring true for a relatively young man in a professional career. However his naivety allows Coben to pace the various revelations as Adam finds out more about how to track people and information online, usually from his much more savvy teenage sons. As the book progresses, the plot gets more complex and more fun to read, though at points it gets perilously close to leaving the reader on the wrong side of the credulity line.

Harlan Coben
Harlan Coben

Well written and flowing, as his books always are, this one has a more thoughtful edge, looking at the dynamics of family life and the corrosive power of secrets. The depiction of Adam’s relationship with his sons feels realistic and, when danger strikes, Adam’s realisation that his love for his wife is stronger than he knew is done very convincingly. These aspects slow down the action, meaning this isn’t quite the thrill ride we’ve come to anticipate from Coben. And the ending is not at all what I expect in a Coben book, which I found disappointing even while recognising that it must be deeply annoying for authors when their fans expect them to churn out the same old, same old every time, while keeping it fresh! Fans can be so pesky!

Even when he’s not at his absolute best, Coben is still head and shoulders above most of the thriller writers out there, and this book is still far and away better than the average thriller, and something a little bit different from his usual style. Recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion Publishing Group.

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61 thoughts on “The Stranger by Harlan Coben

  1. Great review…..I have never heard of Coben.
    Just curious…would you rate him ‘higer’ or ‘lower’ than Patrick Flanery?

    • I wouldn’t compare them at all! Flanery is writing literary fiction primarily, whereas Coben is writing fairly pulp thrillers. I’d say Flanery is marginally better at what he does than Coben is at what he does, but it’s a bit like comparing an astronaut with a bus driver… 🙂

  2. I love your comment about the 50 year old mind trapped in a 30 year old body… As authors get older and their characters are not allowed to get older (at least not for thrillers and the like), do we have cognitive dissonance there?

    • I notice it particularly in thrillers, though it sometimes happens with crime writers too. But for some reason, I’ve really noticed it in the last couple of Coben’s books – I think he might be trying to woo a younger audience by talking about technology and so on, but his characters always sound as if they’re just finding out about it, whereas real forty-year-olds will pretty much have grown up with computers and even phones…

  3. I like Coben very much and even if this isn’t his best, I will still give it a go, I think. The little hiccups about the lead character not quite fitting his age and the like I reckon I can live with. And now I am rather keen to find out about the wife’s secret! You know, FF, authors should be very grateful for your reviews because I have ended up reading books I would never have picked up if it was not for them. A large glass of wine is heartily deserved, I say!

  4. Great review, as always, FF! I haven’t read this one — and as a writer, I think I’d find it a bit disconcerting to read the disconnect between actual and fictional age and such — but still, GOOD thrillers aren’t easy to write, so we’ll cut him some slack!

    • Thanks, Debbie! Indeed, even with the occasional flaw his books are always well worth reading. I like the older thriller writers who can tell a good story without it having to be too grim and gritty…

        • Ha! I know that feeling! I’ve asked for the Sharon Bolton but restrained myself otherwise – I’m really trying to cut down. I still enjoy reading the books, but am struggling to get any enthusiasm up for reviewing them, so I need to stop taking them.

          • I have requested Sharon Bolton too – and want to cut back on NG – I am trying…As I now get quite a few physical books I think NG will eventually fade out for me..but they do release some great book – I need to be more disciplined.

            • I’m much better now at only taking things from NG if they’d be on my list of must-reads anyway. It all got too much – too many of the ones I took were pretty average and there are so many books I actually want to read. They were great for factual books for a while, but that seems to have died off a bit sadly.

            • I only have 11 on my NG list now:) And a few not needing to be read till June – so maybe I might just catch up. For ages they had nothing to offer- now it seems there are a few good ones but I am trying to wind it back completely- will see how it goes.

            • I’ve got 16, but a couple are so old I’ll probably never read them, and several of them are June, so I’m much more on top of it than I used to be. But I agree, somehow there’s not as good a selection as when it started…or maybe we’re just getting pickier!

  5. I’ve read Harlan Coben’s books for years and years. All the way back to Myron and Win – did you read that series? I like his standalones and will be reading MISSING YOU with my book group in the fall. Looking forward to this one at some point this year. You gave a good analysis. 🙂

    • I’ve only read one of the Myron books, and didn’t really get to grips with it. I toyed with going back to the beginning of the series, but he’s so prolific and has been doing so many standalones recently I’ve never found the time. I love his standalones though. I still have Missing You to read myself – missed it when it was published for some reason. Hope your group enjoys it! 🙂

  6. Glad this one worked for you, FictionFan. I think you make a well-taken point about Coben’s ability to make you believe in the ‘everyman whose life spins out of control’ premise. Interesting too that he’s gone in that direction after his Myron Bolitar series.

    • I never really got into the Myron series, but I love his standalones. His heroes do get a bit superhero at the end usually, but not nearly as much as in some thrillers, and within the genre I think he does a much better job of characterisation than most.

  7. After reading your review I’m ashamed to admit that I have never read anything at all by this author, I don’t know why but I sniffily assumed that they weren’t for me… hastily reconsidering as nothing I enjoy more than the ordinary man in an extraordinary situation.

    • He is a bit more thrillery and less psychological than I reckon you’d normally go for, but the main character in this one has more depth and the family dynamics are good, so I think this might well be one you’d enjoy…

  8. Great review – after I’d stopped laughing at the comment about hoping it all messes up for them…With these families, you know the author has something nasty planned! I got this, from MY, and really should get to it. I didn’t mind Myron Bolitar, but all the basketball star stuff got a bit tiring – why can’t Americans play the same sports as everyone else?! His standalones have always been pretty good value – perfect for a long journey. As you say, he specializes in the Everyman being stuck in a pretty scary situation.

  9. “middle-class American Dream – nice house in suburbia” is highly overrated.

    “The plot requires a hefty suspension of disbelief, as is par for the course for thrillers.” Yes. That woman WILL go down the cellar to check on that odd noise. In spite of warnings, that man WILL follow the trail of blood into the dark forest. As for me, I like to read them but if there is a strange noise in the attic or the cellar I shall be hoping my car is in good shape because we will be traveling far and fast away.

    I just got one of those thriller book set in New England from NG. Fun to read, but I do not want to find a crazy clown in my bedroom when I wake up. Nope. 😀

  10. I’ve read quite a few of Harlan Coben’s books and I definitely agree with you that he is head and shoulders above a few thriller writers out there. You’ve made me realise I need to get back to reading some more Coben, thank you! 🙂

    • I read some years ago and then sort of lost touch with him. But I got back to reading the new releases a couple of years ago and am enjoying him just as much. Well worth the read!

  11. And he looks like a chap that would write reverting thrillers. And he also looks like a chap that would write thrillers that are a bit unbelievable at times. See what I can tell from just looking at his ears?

    Come on, FEF! Tell me the secret he learns about his wife!!!! Please!

    • Yes, ears can be terribly revealing – I wonder what Kenny G is hiding beneath that hairdo… *muses*

      Well… I shouldn’t really… but, OK! You know I said I was reading a book that mentioned Pittsburgh but didn’t actually go there? Well, it turns out that Corinne was leading a double life there – she was secretly playing nose tackle for the Steelers!

      • I was just listening to “In the Mood for Love Most Romantic Melodies of All Time” by Kenny G, you should know. That soprano sax is amazzzzzzzing!

        *laughing lots* She must’ve been huge! Goodness. (Time to root for the Red Sox, FEF.)

        • *laughs lots* OK, I’ve tried again, and I’m sorry, but I just don’t hear what you hear when it comes to Mr G. It’s partly his playing – he plays to the notes, there’s no feeling of interpretation or his own personality coming through. But it’s also partly the arrangements, with those awful static metronomic swish-swish-chink backgrounds – every one the same. I am telling you sincerely, putting bias aside, just in case you don’t know, you are already a far, far superior musician to Kenny G, because you have a real feeling for what you play and for how to present it in the way that suits the music best, meaning that you can make even classic stuff sound fresh. Given a choice, I’d much rather listen to The Professor’s Most Romantic Melodies of All Time…

          (Why? *makes note not to be fooled this time into watching three hour game only to find the Professor hasn’t*)

          • *shocked* Better than Kenny? FEF, that’s….groundbreaking! I mean…I couldn’t be more honored that you think that. Really. And I’m better than his arrangers? Wow. Do you know what wonders you do for my confidence? I’m very happy–the sudden. Thank you.

            (*laughs* Did you watch the whole SB? Okay, just watch bits. You know, check in. Or radio listen!)

            • See? You’re a natural American Football watcher the sudden. That’s what I do. Can’t stand the commercials (and the frequency of them). Plus, TB was losing for a bit there.

  12. I’ve never read one of Harlan’s books, but now I want to read one. I admit to avoiding most bestselling authors. I’m weird that way. When someone touts “bestseller,” I run like the wind. I like to stumble across books at the library or through blogger recommendations. 🙂

    • I love them – I don’t read many thrillers but his slightly old-fashioned style of good man caught up in danger works for me. On the whole I avoid bestsellers too, though I sometimes can’t help getting caught up in the hype. It’s blog reviews that are the killer for my TBR though…

    • Oh, that would have been interesting – I imagine he’s probably quite entertaining. The books are fun – variable, but even the not so good one are pretty good, and the good ones are true thrillers.

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