Thursday, 15 March 2007

Harlan Coben - The Woods (Review)

‘The past was coming back. All of it. The dead, it seemed, were digging their way out of the ground now.’

Readers familiar with Coben’s earlier work (particularly other stand-alones such as Just One Look) will recognise the device of having something from the past, seemingly dead and buried (quite literally in this case), coming back to disrupt the present comfortable life of the protagonist.

In The Woods, the event from the past happened twenty years ago, when four teenagers at summer camp walked into the woods at night and were never seen again. Only two bodies were ever found. Now, it seems a newly-murdered man may have been one of the teenagers whose bodies were never found twenty years before, something that could have repercussions for everyone involved.

It all feels cosily familiar Coben territory. He even gives another run out to homicide investigator Lauren Muse and PI Cingle Shaker, a couple of characters from his last stand-alone (The Innocent). This means he doesn’t have to work too hard at rounding them off. Trouble is, I didn’t feel he’d done too well with rounding off his principle characters, either. Paul ‘Cope’ Copeland in particular never really comes to life for me. I don’t believe him when he does something quite early on in the book which affects everything that comes after. Only a fool would make the decision Cope makes, and yet Coben paints him as a smart cookie with a political ambition. Sorry, it just doesn’t ring true.

Cope is also a single parent, struggling to be a half-decent father to his daughter. He himself had ended up being a lone child living with only a father. Understandably, perhaps, Coben doesn’t have enough space in the plotting of this novel to fully develop Cope’s struggle to balance fatherhood with his career. Which is a shame, for as the plot unfolds the theme of fatherhood is significant.

The plot is, as usual, full of twists and turns – although this time out I saw quite a few of the twists coming some way off. Does that mean I’m just getting used to the Coben style, or is Mr Coben simply running out of steam? He has certainly flogged this plot device, of the past coming back to bite the backside of his presently comfortably-off characters, if not death then certainly to within an inch of its life.

And yet.

Despite the sketchy characters, the familiar terrain and the occasional implausibility, this novel WORKS. In the end, I couldn’t put it down. Even when I guessed most of what was going on I still couldn’t put it down – just in case I was wrong.

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