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don't let go

3 february 2019

A little over halfway through Don't Let Go, the narrator says of the current state of the plot: "Okay, that makes a modicum of sense. Not much" (241).

Don't Let Go shares elements with Harlan Coben's other novels: people trying to erase their sordid North-Jersey high-school pasts, fierce family attachments that spill over into violence, arcane conspiracies. Part of the premise for Don't Let Go is the presence of secret nuclear-missile bases in the Jersey suburbs, a supposedly-true urban legend I'd never heard before but that surprises me not a bit. We are in Coben's well-established fictional universe, which includes cameos from protagonists of other Coben novels, like Myron Bolitar and Loren Muse. The plot of Don't Let Go, though, is dafter than most of Coben's, and the dialogue is a little diluted from his usual pungency. Doesn't matter. I read the book in a few hours and am ready for the next one as soon as I find it in a thrift store.

The narrator/protagonist of Don't Let Go is Nap Dumas, a cop with a tough hide and a heart like a marshmallow. We first see him crunching somebody's legs with a baseball bat during his free time, but quickly learn that Nap's sideline consists of learning about abusive husbands and boyfriends from a friend at a women's shelter, and beating the guys to a pulp.

Nap's latest problem won't be so easy to dispose of. He learns that his long-lost girlfriend Maura, who has vanished and become a creature of the underworld as only a Harlen Coben heroine can, has been the only witness to the murder of a Pennsylvania cop, whereupon she's gone into hiding again. The cop turns out to have been a high-school classmate of Nap's and Maura's, and after his death, other members of the class start to get themselves murdered in turn. At this rate they won't have enough left for a 20th reunion.

It all really seems to go back to a terrible night during senior year, when Nap's twin brother Leo – the narratee for much of his story – and Leo's girlfriend Diana, daughter of the local police chief, were killed by a passing train. Did they know too much? What did they see out at the nuclear-missile base? Why did the men in black wait 15 years to start killing the other kids who witnessed the nuclear-missile-base shenanigans?

Mention of "15 years ago" in the novel had me mentally placing its background in the 1970s or '80s till I found some of the pop-culture references rather advanced for that timeframe and realized that a book set in 2017 would have adult characters who'd graduated from high school in 2002. One reason I've always liked Coben is that he is about my age (just a couple of years younger) and has written so much about the New Jersey we both experienced in youth and young adulthood. But time waits for nobody, and to stay relevant, Coben has created believable contexts for characters quite a bit younger than himself.

Don't Let Go is thus a post-9/11 novel (slight spoiler here as to what might have been going on at that post-Cold-War missile base) and shares the paranoia of its era with its audience in a agreeably low-stakes way. You will like Nap for all his bat-wielding ways and you will want him to find his Maura. Maybe he does and maybe he doesn't; I'm not spoiling things to that extent.

Coben, Harlan. Don't Let Go. 2017. New York: Dutton [Penguin Random House], 2018.