Friday, August 10, 2007

This, too, began to seem familiar...

Tell No One tells the story of Dr. David Beck who, eight years ago, tragically lost his wife when she was kidnapped and later murdered. Or did he? (Hint: no.) We're barely into chapter two when David receives a cryptic e-mail suggesting that rumors of his wife's demise were greatly exaggerated. And we're off. Or something...This is probably why I haven't been hired to write exhilarating jacket blurbs.

Anyway, TNO focuses of Beck's attempts to (not necessarily in the following order): find out the truth about his wife, clear his name, and not get killed. Exciting--I suppose--in theory, but considerably less so in execution. It's taken me three subpar mystery/thrillers in rapid succession to get here, but I think I've figured "The Coben Formula":

  • An innocent (typically: an ordinary joe) with a secretive and/or tragic past (or both!).
  • A heavy (in this case: an angry billionaire--yes, just like in Karate Kid 3--but often a crooked cop...or detective..or FBI agent) who will (gasp) stop at nothing to accomplish his nefarious goal.
  • A crazy goon (here: a North Korean by the name of Eric Wu--I'm sad to report that he never accuses the hero of "breaking his balls"--whose fists are actual lethal weapons) in the heavy's employ. In Promise Me, there were actually two goons who worked together, one of whom enjoyed biting his victims to death. Whatever.
  • Ridiculously rapid escalation, invariably stemming from the lead character being accused (falsely, I feel obligated to add, though you've probably figured that out) of some high crime or another. Apparently, in Cobenland, if you're the last person seen with a now-missing person, you've obviously brutally murdered her (the police logic being, from what I gather, if he didn't kill her, why has no one else seen her alive? Aha! Now, let's go question this guy and refuse to believe his perfectly acceptable alibi and generally be really shitty to him...). In Trust No One, Dr. David Beck's wife goes from "being presumed dead for eight years at the hand of a deranged serial killer" to "presumed murdered by her adoring husband" to "not being presumed dead at all" in the span of, say, 80 pages (or: less than a day in the actual book). Paralleling that, Beck goes from "grieving widow" to "odds-on cold-blooded killer" to "well, he must be hiding something!" in the same span. Good times.
  • A strong female character (typically: stunning) who loves and respects the hero (as a friend!) and serves as a trusted confidant throughout, even though the hero can trust no one. Strictly speaking, I have no problems with this aspect, though it's fairly trite.
  • A twist that you'll never see coming. Literally. Coben favors the "I'm going to relinquish no hints at all until the actual reveal, so as to dazzle the reader with my twist" (think The Village or--and it actually pains me to reference this--Vanilla Sky). I won't give anything away but, seriously, I defy anyone to point to a single clue in the preceding 369 pages that would lead us to the "shocking" moment on page 370.
  • A nasty habit of pandering to his readers. This is particularly evident in Tell No One. Specifically, I'm thinking of how the main character casually mentions that Homer Simpson's voice notifies him when he's received a new e-mail. Whereupon Coben, ever so helpfully, adds "I mean Homer Simpson as in The Simpsons character." Ohhhh! That Homer Simpson! I thought he meant the Jeffrey Chaucer impersonator!! Everything's so much clearer now! Later on, Coben has Goon #2 explain to Goon #1 (Eric Wu) how, exactly, a message board works, like we're fucking retarded. You know what? I get that there's a 63 year old woman reading TNO that wouldn't understand either reference (I guess), but, really, does that really take away from the book to the point where you need to spell it out for them? Don't you think they could piece it together on their own? Or would they simply slam the book down in disgust? ("Mes. Sage. Board? Whaaaat? Is this guy from the future?? Where's my book of Jumbles?")

Now, to the untrained eye, it may seem as though I have peculiar obsession with Harlan Coben --as Carrie, my lovely fiancee, has asked me on numerous occasions, "why are you reading his books if you clearly dislike them?" Honestly, baby? I have no idea. In part, I think it's because he's hugely (and, I shall cattily add, inexplicably) popular at the moment (his books routinely debut in the Top 5) and in part because The Atlantic Monthly (my favorite magazine that doesn't have "Sports" or "Illustrated" in the title) deemed him worthy of a lengthy profile last month. Or it could simply be the fact that he went to Amherst with David Foster Wallace, my favorite writer ever. At any rate, clearly I'm not reading his stuff because I like him. In fact, I think I hate him a little bit. Why?

Jealousy

Jealousy

Jealousy (fine! A little bit...)

Because he's a shitty writer. (Better!)

Call it The "Bobby" Principle. (God, what an awful movie.) Anytime I watch or read something that is supposed to be good and my first thought is "well, hell, I could write something better than this!"--that is usually a pretty solid indication that what I'm witnessing is lousy; because, let's be honest, I'm just not that creative (see: the previous 900 or so words). With Coben, I get this feeling on every single fucking page. Say what you want about Dan Brown (I'll start: he's terrible. Any book that does not prominently feature Encyclopedia Brown should contain significantly more pages than chapters--James Patterson, I'm also looking at you), but at least the idea behind The Da Vinci Code (cribbed though it may have been) was clever. One cannot make a similar claim with Coben. And with that, I wash my hands of him. That's right, an unprecedented (I assume) Harlan Coben moratorium.

[Dusts off hands triumphantly]

Unless I change my mind at a later date...which I almost surely will. After all, hating stuff sure is fun. But, until then: ah, sweet principled stands.

3 comments:

RT Murphy said...

Sounds like he's ripe for a South Park parody episode. Consider my prediction lodged.

s. nicole said...

well, well, look who it is.
i am going to be feeling smug for days.

Anonymous said...

BLOG?! NOOOOOOOOOOOOO. You've gone to the darkside.