Harlan Coben may be channelling after all

His suspense thrillers unfold in suburbia, the battleground of the American dream

American author Harlan Coben mines suburban terror like no one else, writing suspense novels with descriptions that begin, “Megan is a suburban soccer mom with two kids, a perfect husband, a picket fence …” Those books have sold 50 million copies, made him the only winner of them the trifecta of U.S. crime writer awards—the Edgar (best mystery), the Shamus (detective fiction) and the Anthony (people’s choice)—and taken him to the top of the New York Times hardcover bestseller list.

That’s a position he has now occupied, with the success of his newest Stay Close,  five times running. So popular is Coben that his new book is the only interruption to the complete reign, on the Times’s combined book and e-book list, of the insanely popular Fifty Shades of Grey S&M trilogy (together Stay Close and the trilogy occupy the first four spots).

Naturally, critics suspect that Coben’s books, considered solely as books, cannot explain this level of love. True, Coben has intriguing premises—the kind that set characters adrift from their familiar worlds—and he can craft plot twists to die for, but is that enough? Must he not be also some sort of authentic channel of contemporary American angst (non-Tea Party variety, that is—there’s no religion or damn-the-government motifs in his novels)? Not according to the author, whose response essentially boils down to, it is the novels, stupid. “I’m politically private,” Coben says in an interview. “I’m read by Chris Christie [a friend since boyhood and Republican governor of New Jersey] and by Bill Clinton [the former Democratic president, whose first post-heart surgery photo, featured on front pages across the U.S., showed him reading a Coben novel].” But his killer argument against his capture of Americana is his success in France. Coben sells 1.5 million copies a year there, and France was where one of his novels  (Tell No One) first became a film (Ne le dis a personne) in 2006.

Coben, a six-foot, four-inch former college basketball player, even had a non-speaking role in it, playing “the hulking thug trailing the main couple from the train station” for a few seconds of screen time. “I’ve been the Jerry Lewis of crime fiction for some time now,’ he concludes happily, meaning that unless Lewis is taken as the authentic voice of American comedy, Coben can hardly be held to speak for U.S. crime fiction.

Good points, and yet…he adds that although he’s good at “fast and twisted plots, it’s the characters that matter.” Coben novels are big on missing people, whether they’re long gone when the story opens or disappear afterwards: “no one is what they appear to be.” Those stories unfold in suburbia, “the battleground of the American Dream.” Getting there, says Coben, “is supposed to be perfection,” though some of his characters aren’t particularly happy once they arrive. “I write about if from both sides,” he says, which indicates there might actually be something in that channelling idea after all.