Discussing Harlan Coben; or, the Usual Suspects get ‘Caught’

August 17, 2012 at 8:56 pm (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

     Wendy Tynes is a crusading TV reporter whose specialty is exposing pedophiles. When social worker Dan Mercer walks straight into one of her sting operations, he’s caught on camera. Mercer was supposedly on his way to molest a teenaged girl in her own home. But there is something wrong with this scenario right from the get go. And  the consequences, for Mercer, Wendy Tynes, and a host of other people, are dire in the extreme.

It’s an explosive opener that certainly got my attention right from the start. But as the narrative progressed, problems arose. For one thing, there’s a whole other storyline unspooling. It involves the disappearance of Haley McWaid, a high achieving high school senior with nary a blemish on her character. Eventually – and inevitably – the two stories coalesce. But in the mean time, there’s a lot to keep track of: a burgeoning cast of characters, a variety of plot twists, and two separate investigations headed up by two different sets of investigators. And, of course, there’s Wendy Tynes, conducting her own investigation.

This past Tuesday night, Louise, the discussion leader, began our discussion of Caught by asking each of us to say what we liked and/or did not like about the book. As a method of kick starting a discussion, this  gambit does not always  work. But it worked quite well this time. It was interesting to hear the widely varying reactions to the novel. Several among us enjoyed it and declared themselves well disposed toward this author and willing to read more of his books. His pacing  and inventive plotting won praise. But others in the group did not share this enthusiasm. They found the story convoluted and the profusion of characters confusing. Susan found the plot farfetched; others thought it spilled over from drama into melodrama. Finally some readers straddled the fence, liking some aspects of the novel and not others. (I was one of that group.)

Two of the novel’s characters were singled out as possessing an especially strong capacity to annoy. One was Hester Crimstein, a lawyer, TV personality possibly modeled on Judge Judy, and all around loud mouth. The other was an unemployed father who hung around with his buddies in a local bar and styled himself a rapper performing under the moniker ‘Ten-A-Fly’  (I learned from the blog Reading for the Joy of It that regarding Coben’s oeuvre, Hester Crimstein is a returning character . Yikes!) A reviewer in the media disliked Wendy Tynes, and if memory serves, one or two in our group felt likewise. Now this surprised me. I found her believable and appealing. I especially enjoyed her interactions with her adolescent son Charlie. Like any teenager, Charlie could be exasperating, but you never doubt the genuine love and protective instinct that subsists on both sides of the relationship. In a video interview on the subject of this novel, Harlan Coben describes, among other things, the way in which the character of Wendy Tynes  grew in importance as he was writing Caught:

Harlan Coben lives in northern New Jersey, a region which furnishes the setting for this novel. This was a source of pleasure for Yours Truly, being as North Jersey is my ancestral homeland. The mention of South Orange, Livingston, and the South Mountain Reservation filled me with delight!

As so often happens at Suspects’ discussions, we attempted to properly classify this novel. Eventually we agreed that Caught should  be considered a thriller as opposed to a mystery. Marge commented that the British designation ‘crime novel’ is useful in a case like this, in that it provides broader coverage  and a more inclusive category. (The British also favor the term ‘detective fiction,’ which is somewhat narrower and more specific. P.D. James’s used it in the title of her delightful survey of the genre, Talking About Detective Fiction.)

After someone said that Caught read like a story destined for the movies, Louise made a suggestion that I found intriguing: she averred that some writers of crime fiction can be thought of screenwriters; others, as poets. This is the kind of observation that makes you want to start making lists. P.D. James? Poet. Harlan Coben? Screenwriter. But for me, at least, this attempt at classification broke down almost immediately. There were too many writers known to me whose work partook of the characteristics of both camps, by which I mean they are both fine writers and great storytellers. One thinks of Ruth Rendell, Peter Lovesey, Peter Robinson, Craig Johnson, etc.

One last word about the plot of Caught: at the conclusion, Coben did manage to generate some genuine suspense. Thus this somewhat flawed novel did succeed, at least to a degree, where much of contemporary fiction tends to fall short.

Before I myself conclude, I want to mention a fact about our discussion leader that is rather distinctive: she has lent her name to characters featured in several mysteries. Louise has been a frequent attendee at the Malice Domestic Convention, which takes place quite nearby every year. It is customary at these events to pick a charity to support, one that is often connected with the cause of promoting literacy. One of the ways tht authors raise money for the cause is to auction off the names of characters in their novels. Here’s what Louise told me:

I was able to get the high bid for a Donna Andrews book because it was a silent auction prize. Toward the end of the auction, I stood a few yards from the sign-up sheet so I could raise the bid on anyone who tried to outbid me. At the live auctions I set a maximum amount since these are the ones where folks get carried away.

Some bookstore owners and others who help out the authors often get a free character. I remember one year where half the current mysteries I read had the name Maggie Mason in them. The best one was a woman wrestler who was going to open a bookshop when she retired. Since that wouldn’t make her any money, she planned to run numbers.

In addition to the novel by Donna Andrews, Louise’s namesakes have appeared in books by Sharon Fiffer, Lillian Stewart Carl, Carole Nelson Douglas, and Jane Cleland. I found a column from last year’s the Richmond Times- Dispatch in which four mysteries are reviewed. In one of them, The Real Macaw by Donna Andrews, Louise’s namesake character is singled out for mention in the plot summary. (The next author to feature her moniker will be Charles Finch.)

So let’s hear it for Louise. She led an excellent discussion, and she’s a generous and warm-hearted person into the bargain. But then, we who are her fellow Suspects already knew that!


To quote the late, great Peter Falk as Columbo, just one more thing: We ended the evening by wishing Carol and Ann bon voyage. They’re off to Scotland next month for a mystery themed tour which will feature, among other activities, attendance at the first ever Bloody Scotland International Crime Writing Festival.


  1. Carol said,

    Sara, who was not at the meeting, will be going to Scotland with us.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Oh, that’s right; I forgot. The three of you will have a terrific time!

      • Carol said,

        Thank you. I’m sure we will discover new writers to share with the Usual Suspects.

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