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Saturday, July 24, 2004

Suburban thriller worth more than 'Just One Look'

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer 

Just One Look
By Harlen Coben
Dutton, 384 pp, 25.95 dollars

It is said that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, but what about amnesiacs?
The protagonist of Harlan Coben's Just One Look, suburban soccer mom and painter Grace Lawson, has been missing a small chunk of her memory since she was trampled nearly to death in a rock concert stampede 15 years ago. In addition to the small hole in her past, the horrifying experience has left her with a permanent limp and the friendship of a mob boss whose son was killed in the concert crush.
When a strange photo of a group of people turns up in a packet of newly developed pictures, Grace doesn't give it much thought, but her husband Jack disappears with it after just one look. Grace's search for him takes her down a spiraling path crossed by an former football player, a sociopathic bleach-blond North Korean assassin, a fading Indian femme fatale, an exhibitionist neighbor, her husband's estranged family, a former rock star and the man who started the deadly stampede at his concert.
Thrillers and mystery novels tend to fall into obvious categories: Agatha Christie-style locked room murders; hard-boiled detective stories; police procedurals; suspenseful espionage capers; hunts for psychopathic serial killers; thinly disguised action movie scripts and many others. The worst are formulaic cliche-ridden trash, the best, like the work of Raymond Chandler, rise above genre to become great literature.
Trying to pigeonhole Harlan Coben within the thriller genre is like trying to pick up a blob of mercury. In terms of subgenre, file Just One Look under "other." In terms of quality, Coben may not have reached the literary peaks, but he is certainly blazing a trail up from the foothills.
Despite a plot that seems to stagger in six different directions at once and surprise the reader at every turn, Coben never once resorts to stereotypes or shallow characters. He spends a considerable number of words, often pages, breathing life into the most minor characters. His suburban New Jersey setting is realistic and populated with bored, uncooperative cops, frustrated housewives and nosy neighbors.
One of the keys to Coben's appeal is that his characters are believable, often unremarkable, people who act in believable ways when confronted with remarkable situations. One character outwits a professional killer by respecting her own limitations and purposely doing the exact opposite of what the standard brainless movie heroine would. These are not the usual hard-boiled heroes with nothing to lose, these are people with kids, mortgages and minivans who get scared, hurt and lonesome.
The downside of all this character development is that Coben provides much of it by telling us directly about characters rather than letting their actions and thoughts show their motivations and personality quirks. Whenever a character is introduced the reader knows a detailed biography is soon to follow.
Throughout the novel's many twists, turns and numerous false endings, Coben does an excellent job of pacing and captures Grace Lawson's growing, barely contained sense of panic in a variety of subtle ways. He has the ability to surprise with the familiar and add unexpected, but perfectly reasonable boomerang curves to the storyline.
Coben's novel is worth more attention than its title suggests.
Copyright 2004 The Yomiuri Shimbun

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