Monday, March 25, 2013

What We're Reading: Suspense, thriller, mystery?

I never know how to describe the books of certain authors. What differentiates a thriller from suspense? and how does each of those differ from mystery? There's a lot of argument about that topic, and sometimes you just have to say "all of the above."

The particular book in question is Harlan Coben's Stay Close, and it has elements from each subgenre: There are mysteries--the reasons behind the main protagonist's double life (a former Atlantic City stripper turned soccer mom); the photographer's visions of blood that keep him on the edge of drunk most of the time; and the missing man whose disappearance sets in motion an examination of the past by multiple parties. There is suspense--the local cop's slow but inevitable realization that rather than one missing guy, he has a potential string of disappearances (possibly murders) that may be attributable to a serial killer. There are thrills--the activities of the young couple creepily nicknamed Ken and Barbie, hired by the missing man's father to shortcut the police investigation by any (nasty) means necessary. And, since you don't find out who the killer is until the end, I guess it's a mystery in that sense too.

Every once in awhile, I am weary of literary fiction, and I want to live both simply and vicariously in a fast-paced, action-oriented, minimalist shoot-'em-up world with a protagonist like Jack Reacher, Mitch Rapp, or even Spencer. (Obviously others agree, considering the success of these books.) I guess I thought of Harlan Coben as that kind of writer when I picked this one up, but really he's not--his books aren't quite that black and white, not quite that literal, not quite that minimalist. They're more like the books of Robert Crais (though I confess that I love Crais more than Coben). There's more development of the peripheral characters here, and the books are less political, more personal in their stories. Still, there is a large gap in intricacy of plotting and use of language between Coben and, say, Tana French, and sometimes, when you just want to be entertained, that is a relief! Also, some of Coben's (like this one) are stand-alones, which can be freeing.

I liked this book. It had good pacing, some sinister elements, a bit of a puzzle to fit together, and a not entirely expected ending. I liked the characters and developed both sympathy for and curiosity about them--always a good sign.

I did, however, have a few problems with his characters' actions, motivations and responses. For instance, the soccer mom decides to return briefly to her past in Atlantic City to help the police solve a mystery. She is gone for most of one day and all that evening, and arrives home at 1:00 a.m. Her husband, who doesn't know anything about her life before they met, is portrayed as confused, hurt, and betrayed by her "disappearance," and all the secrets in their relationship come to a head. I ask you: After 16 years of marriage, would one unexplained absence of less than 24 hours really be a cause for so much suspicion, speculation, and emotion on his part, when he is totally clueless about what's going on? I just didn't buy it.

Similarly, the photographer's life has been ruined by a combination of two events from his past that involved the former stripper (who was the love of his life), and a man who went missing at the same time she did. If she really was his one true love, wouldn't he have made more of an effort to track her down, or, alternatively, to solve the mystery to his own satisfaction? Would he really just sit tight and disintegrate into a sad-sack alcoholic? Reasons were given...but again, I didn't buy them.

I did like this book; but because of these caveats, I didn't love it. I felt like Coben pushed "the willing suspension of disbelief" just a bit too far in some fairly vital plot points. But this novel is still completely engaging, and I can recommend it as an entertaining mystery/thriller/suspense read.

Burbank Public Library also owns this as an audio book, for those who prefer to listen.

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