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missing you

23 november 2020

Harlan Coben is the poet laureate of the New Jersey paranoid noir, but in Missing You (2014), he barely ventures into Jersey at all. Missing You is a New York City novel, with some detours to Montauk and the Pennsylvania Amish country, which turn out to be good places to hide from folks in New York City.

The typical Coben hero(ine) discovers that his/her entire life has been a fa¸ade papering over sinister horrors. This time it's the turn of Kat Donovan, NYPD detective and lovelorn alcoholic. Kat has spent nearly two decades pining the abrupt departure of the love of her life, a fellow named Jeff. Jeff's disappearance was simultaneous with the murder of Kat's detective father, a killing pinned on a cliché mob hitman who can't be the real killer, can he?

Kat's friend Stacy signs her up for a computer dating service – as late as 2014, this was not primarily a phone-app activity, it seems – and Kat immediately connects with … Jeff, of course. Or is it Jeff? At first he does not seem to remember her. Well, it has been 18 years. Maybe Kat is just imagining things. Maybe she is imagining her suspicions about her father's death too; maybe she imagines a teenage boy who contacts her to tell her that his mother has disappeared with Jeff, taking his college fund with her. Stuff like this is just the background noise of Harlan Coben novels, after all.

But at the heart of Missing You is a nightmare underworld linked to a fear that Coben often exploits: the pseudonymity of the Internet, which he associates with vast untraceable conspiracies. Specifically, in a Coben novel, if you do use a dating service, you will very probably be the target of a serial killer who will lure you and your life savings (sight unseen) to a "romantic getaway" which turns out to be a remote farmhouse populated by sadists and dotted with shallow graves.

The preposterousness of this theme is matched only by its weird undertow of psychological power. Coben is a great over-the-top portrayer of alienation. In some of his novels family ties turn out to be the only antidote to this alienation, but Missing You, with its single, childless heroine, is short on family ties and snarls the few that Kat still possesses. She is left alone on the Upper West Side, where nothing outside her apartment walls is what it seems (and ultimately even her apartment turns out to be, in a sense, mendacious).

Coben, Harlan. Missing You. 2014. New York: Signet [Penguin Random House], 2015.