Thursday, August 31, 2006

Coben At His Best – A Review of “Darkest Fear”

Seth Godin is a marketing guru and a prolific writer. One of my favorite books by Seth is “Free Prize Inside.” Godin reminds us of the thrill we experienced as kids in opening up a cereal box to dig for the free prize buried amongst the Corn Flakes or Cheerios – a whistle, a decoder ring, a puzzle. His premise is that the best companies and the best brands offer something extra – something beyond what the consumer expected when he purchased the product or the service. This seems to be an apt description of what Harlan Coben offers as an author to his loyal readers. Hidden inside the box of each of his mystery genre novels is something extra – an unexpected exploration of some aspect of human nature that takes the reader to a depth not usually experienced in a suspense novel. In the case of “Darkest Fear,” Coben stands on the shoulders of Turgenev and explores the relationships between fathers and sons. Without his free prizes inside, it is possible that his Myron Bolitar series could have devolved into him cranking out a string of formulaic page-turners. To his credit, Coben has opted for doing the harder work of mining deeper veins of insight and understanding - hidden within the bedrock of murder, mystery, intrigue and non-stop action.

In “Darkest Fear,” Coben’s exploration of the vagaries of fatherhood is set within the story of the kidnapping of a child desperately in need of a bone marrow transplant. Myron and Win are called upon to find not only the boy – but also a missing bone marrow donor. The plot twists are breathtaking and brilliant.

This story contains some of Coben's most moving and incisive writing:

In this excerpt, Myron feels the thrill and frisson of expressing fatherly love for the first time in his life after he helps to find and rescue the kidnapped Jeremy, whom he has just discovered is his biological son:

“Myron felt his knees buckle, but he fought them and stayed upright. He ran to the boy. The boy stretched out his arms. Myron embraced him and felt his heart fall and shatter. Jeremy was crying. Myron lifted his hand and stroked his hair and shushed him. Like his father. Like his father had done to him countless times. A sudden, beautiful warmth streamed through his veins, tingling his fingers and toes, and for a moment, Myron thought that maybe he understood what his father felt. Myron had always cherished being on the son side of the hug, but now, for just the most fleeting of moments, he experienced something so much stronger – the intensity and overwhelming depth of being on the other side – that it shook every part of him.” (Page 276)

In the process of exploring what it means to be a father, Coben also touches on an examination of what is means to be a man. In the selection below, Chase Layton ruminates on his feelings after having been physically assaulted by Myron, who resorted to violence to force Chase to help him find Jeremy. Myron interrupts Chase’s workout in the gym:

“Chase Layton nodded and sat back on the bench. Then he looked at Myron. ‘Do you want to know what the worst part of it is?’

No, Myron thought,
‘If you want to tell me.’

‘The shame,’ Chase said.

Myron started to open his mouth, but Chase waved him quiet.

‘It’s not the beating or the pain. It’s the feeling of total helplessness. We were primitive. We were man to man. There was nothing I could do but take it. You made me feel like’ – he looked up, found the words, looked straight at Myron – ‘like I wasn’t a real man.’

The words made Myron cringe.

‘I went to these great schools and joined all the right clubs and made a fortune in my chosen profession. I fathered three kids and raised them and loved them the best I could. Then one day you punch me – and I realize that I’m not a real man.’

‘You’re wrong,’ Myron said.

‘You’re going to say that violence is no measure of a man. On some level you’re right. But on some level, the base level that makes us men, we both know you’re wrong. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. It’d just be a further insult.’

Myron swallowed down the clichés. Chase took deep breaths and reached for the bar.

‘Need a spotter?’ Myron said.

Chase Layton gripped it and jerked it off the stand.

“I don’t need anybody.’ he said.” (Pages 285-6)

It is because of this kind of writing that I keep returning to read one more book by Coben. As far as I can tell, I still have one more book in the Myron Bolitar series I have not yet read. Stay tuned!


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