August 13, 2007

Just One Look

by Harlan Coben

A lovely matryoshka of a thriller. One afternoon, a New Jersey housewife picks up some pictures at the photomat and finds an old picture in the middle of her snapshots — a picture of a group of college kids, one of whom might be her husband. Later, the husband takes a look at the picture, steps out for some sort of errand, and never comes home. A complicated time is had by all.

I grabbed this after reading Eric Konigsberg's appreciation, “Paperback Writer”, in The Atlantic, and I wasn't disappointed. Coben has a true gift for plot twists, but that isn't the point here: in fact, the best plot twist is expended on a red herring. This thriller is about the wheels within wheels, and I don't know that it's ever been done better.

I did notice one irritation: when Coben wants to avoid descriptive folderol, he talks about "one of those Starbucks debit cards" or "one of those black signs" or "one of those massive outdoor malls", "one of those upscale hair salons", "one of those gray speakerphones". Robert Parker, also concerned with getting back to the dialog and facing the same problem, just uses brand names and familiar locations as a convenient shorthand. Here, it's a tic, and like an undone button it's distracting once you notice it.