Wednesday 20 March 2019

Running Away with Harlan Coben

After reading Harlan Coben’s latest thriller Run Away my thoughts drifted back to a pivotal point in this novelist’s career – what we term his breakthrough book. I am writing about a novel that was extraordinary. It was different from what came before, and one that would launch Harlan Coben’s career as one of the World’s most engaging thriller writers, and one that changed the direction of his writing career, as well as being one (that I firmly believe) nudged the direction of the thriller genre. The book I allude to was of course TELL NO ONE, the first of his work that would be adapted for film, and curiously it would be Europe that acclaimed his talent.

But first a little context, and also a look at the surreal happenings in this reality, that at times makes one feel as if life contains the elements, reflections and occurrences that would not be out of place in a Harlan Coben novel.

I was first introduced to the work of Harlan Coben, thanks to one of my regular visits to the long-gone Murder Ink bookstore in Dawson Street, Dublin. It was in the late 1990s, and I recall sitting with Mike Gallaher, Murder Ink’s owner and as we sipped coffee, we discussed what books we’d read. Michael asked if I had read the Myron Bolitar novels penned by Harlan Coben? As I hadn’t, Michael told me about them, and about Myron Bolitar who was involved in investigating sports……and at that point I told Gallaher, sorry I’m not interested in sports, at which Gallaher told me “trust me Ali, the sports angle is just a foil. These novels by Harlan Coben are terrific, funny and exciting”. Michael also knew of my fascination with the music of Bruce Springsteen, so he added “and he’s from New Jersey, like Bruce Springsteen”.  

I trusted Michael Gallaher as I had purchased many books from him, over the years and he was rarely off target. Never one constrained by the forces of moderation, I bought all he had in the store, the first four of the Myron Bolitar novels [Deal Breaker, Drop Shot, Fade Away and Back Spin].

To be totally honest, I had low expectations as they looked way too sports-orientated for my palate, but Michael Gallaher was my friend, so I placed them into the bag with some others I purchased. I put off reading them as they appeared (as what I term) ‘Spunkbubbles’ with tennis rackets, golf clubs, US footballs, baseball bats emblazoned on the covers. As a result, they languished for several months in my TBR [to-be-read] pile, as each time I looked at the covers, my heart sank, because I dislike sports, and the idea of a crime fiction novel set in the world of athletics made me feel nauseous, they made me feel ill. They appeared to me, like literary Ebola.

Then on one particularly rainy day, I sifted through my masses of books and stumbled upon those four books by Harlan Coben, the ones Michael Gallaher of Murder Ink recommended, the ones that were crime and mystery thrillers set in the world of sport.

I held my nose as I cracked the spine of DEAL BREAKER expecting to abandon it after a few pages; BUT following reading the first chapter I realised I had been an idiot. I failed that test, the adage - “never judge a book by its cover”.

The writing was exhilarating, I found myself laughing out aloud, and I also found myself thinking deeply for this novel provoked intense thought and introspection. Then I read the next three books, back-to-back and they were just so damned good, extraordinary writing, words that made me think. They contained a dry wit, a humour that made me laugh, as I turned the pages, but also the humour was useful, because they were in fact very, very dark books; all despite the amiable nature of Harlan’s protagonist (and alter-ego), Myron Bolitar.
The sports angle, the backdrop was just that – purely a backdrop, it provided a ‘frame of reference’ in which a thought-provoking narrative could unfold – it was the lens.

Though his work is dark, and when later I got to meet the writer, Harlan Coben, I understood that writers with the darkest and most troubling imaginations are the nicest and most life-affirming of people.

I was hooked, and at that time of my life, Harlan Coben joined my other favourite writers, on my bookshelves; novelists such as Dennis Lehane, Lee Child, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Thomas Harris, Michael Connelly, John Connolly, Martina Cole, Robert Crais, Jeffery Deaver, Philip Kerr among many, many others. What is impressive about these writers is the fact that despite selling books by the bucket-load, they could easily slack off and write ‘any old biff’ – but they continue to provide great and insightful novels, narratives that make the reader think deeply.

Harlan Coben is one such writer.

Harlan Coben’s work acts as a prism from which we can inspect our own lives, for his work makes us think, and that is what makes a novelist I consider to be ‘extraordinary’.

Just before Michael Gallaher closed down his shop Murder ink, we sat for a final coffee, and I thanked him for introducing me to the work of Harlan Coben.

We laughed at my initial reticence in cracking the spine of Deal Breaker, with all that Sports backdrop that had put me off. Michael amused me with an anecdote, which I will share –

“Do you remember when I told you about the work of Harlan Coben all those years ago? And as I knew the sports angle didn’t appeal to you, so I told you that Harlan Coben was from New Jersey, the same state as Bruce Springsteen?

I nodded.

“Well his guitarist Nils Lofgren was in the shop yesterday. He’s playing with Springsteen in Dublin tomorrow, and as he’s a big reader of Crime Fiction he was in the shop yesterday - and just like you, he asked for a recommendation, so I told him about Harlan Coben. Just like you, those many years ago, Nils Lofgren had never read a Harlan Coben novel before. He was intrigued due to the link to New Jersey, so he bought a few of his books here in Dublin.”

It was not long after that I noticed on Harlan Coben’s old website, before it became the ultra-slick that there was a photo of Harlan backstage with the E-Street Band, and that a friendship developed with Nils Lofgren

But coming full circle, it would not be one of the first seven Myron Bolitar series thrillers that changed everything for me. it would be his standalone novel TELL NO ONE that would become the breakout, the novel that readers outside the confines of the crime, mystery, thriller genre would pick up, and the first that made it to film, the one that the French saw merit, and later Sky TV and Netflix would follow suit.  

When I read TELL NO ONE, I was very excited to meet Harlan Coben, and bought multiple copies of that hardcover (the one with that distinctive purple cover). Soon I found myself in a queue at the fondly remembered Crime-in-Store bookshop in London’s Covent Garden to get those books signed. For it was that year that many of my friends would receive signed copies of TELL NO ONE as gifts. It was also in that signing queue (just after the millennium) that I would first bump into Shots Blogger Ayo Onatade. I was in awe as Ayo had copies of those very rare paperbacks of Harlan’s early books Play Dead and Miracle Cure for signing.
Then over the years I would bump into Harlan at many book launches, award ceremonies as well as his appearances at Conventions such as Bouchercon, Theakstons’ Crime Writing Festival – and I applauded until my hands were red, when Harlan brought back Myron Bolitar a decade ago, as well as seeing his foray into YA fiction.

So, what were my thoughts on Harlan’s latest RUN AWAY?

Renowned for his twisty, serpentine plots, we often overlook just how great a novelist and narrative stylist Harlan Coben truly is. His latest, Run Away is a thriller but also a novel that makes you think deeply as the pages race, not unlike protagonist Simon Greene’s journey to save his daughter, and ultimately his family.

Simon and his wife Ingrid Greene maybe suffering middle-class guilt, in failing their daughter Paige who has slipped through the cracks within their picture-perfect suburban life. The three children, Sam, Anya, and Paige have all the opportunities afforded by their parents, New York professionals in paediatric medicine, and with PPG Wealth Management in the financial sector.

But something goes wrong.

Read the full review from Shots Magazine HERE because like TELL NO ONE, Harlan’s latest, decades on is extraordinary, very special.

So as Harlan launches his new thriller, as well as an upcoming visit to England as a guest of Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival 2019, In Harrogate, he kindly agreed to answering a few questions for Shots Magazine.

Ali:         Welcome back to Shots Magazine Harlan, so how exhausted are you after penning the breathless Run Away?

Harlan:      Ha!  Never! I feel more energized than ever!  (This is a lie)

Ali:        And again you mine the lives of normal families to create an extraordinary story, so what is it about the mysteries concealed in suburban life that interests you?

Harlan:          Well, the Greene’s live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan so it’s very much city rather than suburban life. Family fascinates me – the ties and bonds of blood. That was a good place to start. Throw in some of the new genealogy websites, a cult, a few killers, a drug problem….

Ali:        I felt Run Away to be perhaps your most personal book, in terms of the backdrop of Simon Greene’s wife being a Physician and having three children? The Lanford College; am I right?

Harlan:          All the books are personal, but here’s something funny. When my four kids read RUN AWAY, they all started trying to guess which one of them was supposed to be Paige, Simon’s most troubled daughter. (Answer: None – I’m remarkably lucky)

Ali:         So, tell me, was there a spark that ignited the story behind Run Away, or was it just your work ethic of needing to get your derriere onto your chair and releasing your imagination into the dark-side?

Harlan:  It’s always both. I had a few things I wanted to write about – family, religion, drugs, DNA – but nothing came together until, like Simon on the opening page, I was sitting on a bench in Central Park listening to street musician mangling out a John Lennon tune. That was the spark I needed.

Ali:         And I see you are back at Theakston’s Harrogate Crime Festival, so tell us what is it about Europe that you consider appeals to readers of your work, as Run Away, like much of your work is heavily set in America?

Harlan:          Oh, I don’t know. From what I’m told, the European reader really values thrillers with heart. I hope that’s what the appeal is, but whatever, I’m so grateful.

Ali:         I see that you are in conversation with Ian Rankin while a guest of Theakstons’ Crime Writing Festival, so what are we likely to expect?

Harlan:          A very serious, weighty, mono-toned, dry discourse that will put the audience to sleep. Or maybe the opposite. I’m not sure.

Ali:         The last time we met, was at Bouchercon New Orleans back in 2016 a wonderful party managed by Heather Graham and her team, so tell us about that time in Louisiana?

Harlan:          It was magical. Being guest of honor at a conference I first came to as a total unknown… well, wow, that was a pretty heady. Heather Graham is the best too. She’s just a great person in so many ways. I adore her.

Ali:        I hear that it was during a military assignment that Heather asked you about being one of Bouchercon’s GoH, so tell us about that assignment?

Harlan:          I traveled with Heather and several other crime writers – F Paul Wilson, Phillip Margolin, Kathleen Antrim – on a USO Tour to entertain (more like, hang with) the troops serving in Kuwait, UK, Germany and at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC. It was an incredible and poignant experience.
Ali:       Back to Run Away, I noticed a few subtle nods to previous work, such as Lanford College [from Six Years] being where Paige Greene’s problems may have started. So, are these references just part of the writing process, or written for fans of your work, and also nerds like me to uncover?

Harlan:  A little bit of both. I love what I think is commonly called Easter eggs in both books and TV. On the tv show THE FIVE, for example, savvy viewers/readers picked up that we named Pru’s medical clinic after Win from my Myron books. But I also do to show that I’m often working in the same world when I write my books. For that reason, overlap ends up being natural.

Ali:         And is it true that your own memories of Amherst College became fictionalised in your work and is it also true that while a student there, you met not only your wife, but an aspiring writer entitled Dan Brown? And what ever happened to that Dan Brown bloke?

Harlan:           Certainly, there are similarities between Amherst College and Lanford, but that’s true of many things, if not most things, I write about. Yes, I met my wife at Amherst College. And yes, I met Dan Brown there too. Dan and I remain friends, but meeting my wife was better. I think Dan would agree.

Ali                Can you tell us a little of what is happening to cinematic and TV adaptations of your work?

Harlan:          I just came back from Manchester where we started filming THE STRANGER, an eight-episode crime drama based off my book, starring Richard Armitage, Siobhan Finneran, Stephen Rea, Jennifer Saunders (yes, THE Jennifer Saunders – her first dramatic role), Hannah Kamen-John, Anthony Stewart Head, Paul Kaye, Shaun Dooley… it’s a dream group.
Ali:      Thanks Harlan for your time, we loved Run Away, and so what’s next?

Harlan:  Oh I never talk about the next book. It takes away some of the energy. To put it another way, I would LOVE to tell you about the next book, but the only way I get that satisfaction is to WRITE it. And thanks. I really can’t wait to hear people’s reaction to RUN AWAY. It’s one of my personal favorites – but who cares what I think??

Shots Magazine would like to thank Charlotte Bush of PenguinRandomHouse for her help in organising this interview

Click HERE for video and an insightful interview feature between Harlan Coben and Michael Connelly recorded at Bouchercon 2016, New Orleans

If you’ve not read Harlan Coben, then RUN AWAY is a great place to start, more information from

Photos © 1997 – 2019 A Karim

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