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the stranger

27 may 2016

First let me get this out of the way: The Stranger? What kind of title is that, Harlan Coben? Are you trying to make your novels run together even more than the last seven nondescript titles suggested? Are you invoking Camus? But you're Harlan Coben; nobody's picking up Harlan Coben thinking it'll be like Camus. Can't you once in a while use a title like The Perils of Piscataway or something I have a hope of distinguishing from any of your others?

/rant. Anyway, "The Stranger" is this guy who comes up to you in a parking lot and reveals that your dearest beliefs about the stability and security of your life are all a sham. He finds your secrets by hacking the deep Internet. The stranger may arrive as a blackmailer, or as someone following through on a threat of blackmail. He's part mobster, part Quixote. He ruins your life all the same.

We are as always in Coben's familiar North Jersey, where the essence of the human male has found its freest, least trammelled expression: hetero; fiercely monogamous; nuclear; viscerally, atavistically attached to one's children; paranoid about cuckolding (because then your atavistic visceral parenting urges would be false); prone to excesses in pleasure and competition but reining in those excesses to provide for one's family, while being eaten alive by the sense that you're not quite as good at either excess or provision as the Next Guy; all-knowing about Kids and baffled by Woman. Our exemplar this time is Adam Price, resourceful lawyer riding for the fall that comes when The Stranger reveals that his wife Corinne has faked a pregnancy and a miscarriage. And then Corinne disappears. This is odd; she's not like that. But in CobenWorld you never know what the wife of your bosom is really like.

"The Internet makes it easy to be anonymous and to lie and to keep terrible, destructive secrets from your loved ones," the stranger tells Adam (343). Paradoxically, it also makes these anonymous destructive secrets totally public to anyone who cares to spend five minutes following links on Facebook – including you yourself, after you've been jolted out of your complacency. To equalize the secretive and the duped, the stranger and his pals "set up a system whereby the Wi-Fi … went out and bounced all over the world" (255). I don't think WiFi can actually do that, but then there are a lot of things in this novel that can't actually happen.

The Stranger is a little less overpopulated and wacky than some of Coben's other novels: more straightforward, darker. It's still the same moral universe, where the worst actions can be explained by primal pair-bonding and parenting urges. But it's cleaner and there are fewer wisecracks. It doesn't seem phoned in: it's well-plotted and well-edited. But it has a spare feel to it, as if the message was too powerful to let nonsense get in its way. The problem is that the message itself is nonsense.

Coben, Harlan. The Stranger. New York: Dutton [Penguin Random House], 2015.