Just one look at Coben’s latest stand-alone thriller (after No Second Chance) highlights the author’s customary strengths (swift pacing, strong lead characters) but also his weaknesses, including limited originality and, in this case, a plot so complicated that many final pages are devoted to sorting it out. The premise is simple enough: suburban housewife Grace Lawson collects some pictures at the local Photomat; inexplicably, one is an old print depicting her husband, Jack, with other college students; when Grace shows the photo to Jack, he drives away-and disappears. Grace’s hunt for her missing husband, whom we learn has been kidnapped (but why? and Coben fans will note that the author’s last novel also hinged on a kidnapped family member), sweeps her back into a nightmare she thought she’d escaped: the evening years ago when she survived a rock concert rampage, occasioned by a shooting that left many dead. Meanwhile, Eric Wu, a-dare we say?-inscrutable martial-arts killer who has snatched Jack for reasons unknown, menaces assorted folk. Eventually Grace, aided by a Gotti-like mobster whose child was killed in the rampage, gloms on to Wu, as well as on to Jack’s sister, a high-powered attorney who, it turns out, is representing the guy who started the rampage by firing his gun. Only he didn’t start the rampage after all, and then there’s the rock star who vanished after the shooting and resultant mayhem-what’s he now doing on Grace’s doorstep? This is all as complicated as a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle and about as hard to figure out, although in the midst of the murk there are some wonderful character touches. Coben can write thrillers that lift readers off their seats; this one, alas, will have them slumping.
If the trick of suspense writing is to get readers to identify so passionately with the beleaguered principal character that they disappear into the story, feeling the knife points of tension themselves, then Coben is the Houdini of the form. Coben, who has won the Trifecta of mystery writing-the Edgar, the Anthony, and the Shamus Awards-likes to burst the bubble of suburban security by having his characters’ well-ordered, happy lives upended in ways that mirror readers’ fears. In his four stand-alone thrillers, the past comes back to bite or haunt the protagonist, or the present vanishes in one fatal moment. In this latest excursion into the dark, a suburban mother finds one picture that does not belong in the pack of family outing photos she’s just picked up. The picture, showing a group of college students, seems as if it was taken 20 years ago. One of the group looks like her husband. A girl in the group has an X drawn across her face. When Mrs. Happily Married shows the picture to her husband, he seems shaken, then leaves home. Coben ratchets up the suspense of the wife trying to find her husband with another drama, that of a serial killer in the neighborhood. A tragic accident from the woman’s past intersects with her husband’s secrets and the movements of the killer in ways that are satisfyingly creepy.