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hold tight

20 december 2013

Hold Tight has one of the daffier stories of any of Harlan Coben's thrillers, and that's really saying something.

Not only are we in Coben's absurdly paranoid New Jersey, where every suburban housefront conceals at least three deeply-buried major felony cases, but every one of the six or eight households we observe in the course of Hold Tight has a profoundly lurid link to the secrets festering in one of the others. When the serial killer at the heart of the novel's plot pulls up to any given house, he may be after a particular form of ironic revenge, but if his intended victim isn't there, he'll find somebody else just as deserving of poetic justice.

The inciting event in Hold Tight is hard to specify, but let's take one of several: an otherwise popular and compassionate middleschool teacher makes fun of one of his female students for sporting an incipient mustache. She's mortified; one imagines the incident will blow over, but it just festers and festers. As one of Coben's teen characters puts it,

If you whistle at a girl in school, you can go to jail. If you bump into someone's chest in the hallway, you can be brought up on some kind of charges. One mistake and you're out. … How are we supposed to find our way? (347)
The kid is referring to how mistakes haunt kids forever (also a theme in Coben's novel The Innocent). But the same applies in spades to grownups. Coben's New Jersey is a place where the tiniest slip sends you off the rails of upper-middle-class life forever. It's not like the New Jersey I remember from the '70s and '80s, but then I wasn't really in that Jersey's upper middle class.

Anyway, a good teacher does a bad thing. A girl suffers. Her divorced mother decides to exact revenge by blackmailing the teacher. The teacher lets his late sister's sociopathic widower know about the blackmail. The girl's serial-dater dad, innocent if ineffectual, supervises sleepovers involving his disgraced daughter the daughter of a neighbor, whose brother has become involved in a drug ring that has forced his best friend to commit suicide. The brother disappears, making his helicopter parents frantic, and distracting their attention from the neighbor whose son needs a kidney transplant but can't get it because the real father of the boy is a rapist that she's murdered. The rapist turns out to be … wait, I'm completely lost.

The wonder is that this plot holds together, and one has to hand extreme cleverness to Coben. One also likes his characters, especially detective Loren Muse, a kind of Kinsey Millhone with a badge who also appeared in The Innocent. One is dubious of some of the backstory, like the top-tier transplant surgeon whose hobby is amateur ice hockey. (Nice way to care for your hands! though heck, I suppose stranger hobbies have been had by great surgeons.)

One of Coben's accumulating themes is that humans don't change, and human nature doesn't change, much as we try to paper it over with the Jersey suburbs. Hold Tight's serial killer is a case in point:

The rest of the world's inhabitants did not matter to him. They were background scenery, props, nothing more. The truth was—a truth he understood early—he derived intense pleasure from harming others. He didn't know why. Some people derive pleasure from a soft breeze or a warm hug or a victory shot in a basketball game. [He] derived it from ridding the planet of another inhabitant. (229-30)
The killer speculates that war doesn't warp people; it brings out their true nature. Time and again, in Coben's novels, we see the "good" flipside of that dynamic, as mild-mannered suburban parents go atavistic and perform feats of brutality to save their little nestlings. This is grim doctrine, and incipiently reactionary, but my gosh is it excitingly-plotted.

Coben, Harlan. Hold Tight. New York: Dutton [Penguin], 2008.