I am a huge geek for books and roller coasters, but I shy away from comparing the two. For one thing, if you get off of a great thrill ride and scream to the people waiting in line, “MAN! That was just like a great book!”, most of them are probably going to file out and go get a funnel cake. And when I see a book compared to a roller coaster I never know exactly what in the world that means. It seems to denote an up-and-down plot, for which a pogo-stick comparison would be more apt. Or it means a plot with twists and turns you couldn’t see coming, but why not be more specific and compare it to Space Mountain? Most rides are out in the open and well-studied before you ever hear the click of a lap bar.
I wouldn’t be caught dead comparing a book to a roller coaster. Except for this once. Because Harlan Coben’s newest thriller, Long Lost, is an exhausting mixture of adrenaline and laughter that has no other decent metaphor. Well, being chased by a knife-wielding clown is similar. Especially when they get that snorkel-fin waddle going with those big red shoes.
In Long Lost Coben returns to his fan-favorite sports agent Myron Bolitar. For the first time in the series, Myron’s exploits are going to take him globetrotting and dealing with troubles on an international scale. As a sports agent, Myron is normally out to save a client’s skin (and usually his own ass). And as ESPN and CourtTV continue to share more and more of the same programming, it is a character conceit that requires absolutely no suspension of disbelief. But this time Myron is leaving his sports stars defenseless as he rushes to France to help an old friend. As his clients are no doubt shooting themselves in clubs, Myron is meeting up with an old love whose husband has been murdered. But this simple case soon reveals a wider plot that will leave you slack-jawed with the final twist.
Along the way, be prepared for an exhausting mixture of belly laughs and kidney punches. Coben does humor and action with equal aplomb. You’ll lower your defenses with the witty banter and then he will sock you in the gut, roughing you up just enough to appreciate the next round of laughs. If John D. MacDonald and Gregory McDonald had co-written a book, melding Fletch and Travis McGee, the result would have been something like Coben’s Myron Bolitar.
What makes the action scenes in Long Lost intense is the lack of unrealistic excess. Two men fighting in a coat closet creates a nail-biting scene that succeeds due to grit rather than hyperbole. As a fan of mixed martial arts, I could appreciate the finesse of an honest struggle with Coben’s descriptions of leverage and body control. He will often slow pivotal events down to a crawl, just as our brains do in response to real danger. And to prove that the sense of fear is deserved, Coben is one of the rare authors that will invest heavily in a likable character before he has them brutally murdered. Like a loose lap bar, there is no sense of security here to coddle the reader.
Long Lost also drew something interesting to my attention. Even though it is not a gadget book–there is no techno-wizardry or agent paraphernalia–Coben uses ordinary devices in what would have been science fiction a decade ago. Pictures are snapped with a cell-phone and forwarded to a friend. Emails are sent to blackberries. And the classic scene where they reposition spy satellites in order to acquire a hazy image of terrorist training camps is replaced with a few taps in Google Earth. Coben doesn’t wield these advances in technology blatantly in order to impress us. They are just ordinary acts by characters that are wise enough to employ whatever tools they have available. This casual use of modern tech in a thriller seemed jarring for how completely normal it came across. While most techno-thriller writers are busy dreaming of the next tomorrows, Coben has captured the fact that some of those days have already slid by, largely unnoticed.
Long Lost is a book that will be enjoyed by a wide audience. Myron and his best friend Win have a great bond that appealed to my gruff crust. And the romance between Myron and Terese, and Terese’s struggle with having lost a husband and child, tore up my sensitive core. I spent an equal amount of time slapping my thigh and laughing as I did slapping my forehead and fretting, and the book zipped by faster than I would have liked. It is one of those rides that you wish the conductor would let you stay on so you can take another quick lap. Kinda like being chased by a clown.