Harlan Coben may be the only mystery writer to have inspired the dubious endorsement, "Raymond Chandler meets Bridget Jones" (as the Chicago Tribune wrote about Darkest Fear). But it's not hard to see what the critic means: Coben knows how to create a good chase, but he is also adept at generating laughs along the way. His books often start with a few pieces of bad news and end with the closet door flung open to reveal a few skeletons.
Debuting in 1995, the series that cemented Coben's reputation revolves around Myron Bolitar, a wisecracking sports agent who always finds himself getting into trouble, via his clients or his own past. What's endearing about these books is Coben's willingness to have fun as he spins a story. He might poke fun the yuppie wardrobe of Bolitar's partner, Win, or his gal Friday (and sometime female wrestler), Big Cyndi's, tendency to wear "more makeup than the cast of Cats." There's a slight boys' club air to the series, but it's more frat house than locker room -- or more appropriately, rec room, since Bolitar finds himself still living at his parents' in his early 30s.
Sports-averse readers should not avoid the Bolitar books; in the end, sports play only a peripheral role in the story, which is primarily about the mystery. Given this, it's not surprising that Coben has called William Goldman's Marathon Man one of his favorite thrillers and has cited Philip Roth and Alfred Hitchcock as influences.
And yes, there's certainly life beyond Bolitar! Coben has crafted a number of superb stand-alone thrillers filled with tortuous twists and turns and peopled with characters you can't help but root for. In a 2001 interview, the author stated, "I love a book that sneaks up behind you at the end and slaps you in the back of the head." Ultimately, that describes everything in Harlan Coben's oeuvre.
Good to Know
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Coben has four children with wife Anne, his sweetheart since age 20.
Coben advises aspiring writers thusly: "Write. Don't take classes. Don't join workshops. Don't listen to me," he told the Charlotte Austin Review. "Just write. Oh, and cut. Cut a lot. You're probably not editing yourself enough. Then rewrite. Then rewrite again. Repeat. Like with shampooing."
Coben says his mother was his best literary inspiration in an interview with the Page One literary newsletter. "We'd go to the old Barnes & Noble in Manhattan (back then, if you can believe this, I think there was only one) and spend the entire day. We didn't have much money back then and we almost never bought toys -- but we were always allowed to get whatever books we wanted."
In our interview, Coben shared more fun facts:
"I once worked as a tour guide in the Costa del Sol of Spain."
"I pretty much only wear Lilly Pulitzer ties because my best friend owns the company."
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In the spring of 2003, Harlan Coben answered some of our questions.
What are your all-time favorite books -- and what makes them special to you?
The Narnia series by C. S. Lewis -- Total childhood enchantment.
A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle -- Another favorite from elementary school. The idea of a missing relative still resonates with me.
Marathon Man by William Goldman -- When I was a teen, this was my first adult thriller. I loved the way Goldman pulled me in. I loved the fact that I couldn't put it down. I try to bring that suspense to my own work.
Where are the Children? by Mary Higgins Clark -- A textbook on pace and tension.
Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker -- All the Spenser novels. Ninety percent of writers who do P. I. admit Parker was a major influence. The other ten percent lie.
Zuckerman Unbound by Philip Roth -- Roth is my favorite author. This, along with Portnoy's Complaint, is the one I recommend most.
What are some of your favorite films?One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
The Deer Hunter
Stranger on a Train
How about music?Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Mozart (great writing music)
And from my high school days:
Blue Oyster Cult
The Doobie Brothers
What are your favorite books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
A great gift is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Purportedly a writer's guide, Lamott's book describes the creative process -- and by extension, the insecurities of life -- as well as anything out there. It's also witty and great fun.
What else can you tell your readers about yourself? Any favorite hobbies or pastimes?
Frankly I'm fairly boring or fairly busy. Between writing and family, I have little time for anything else. I'm thinking of taking up golf, but the idea of spending time with golfers frightens me. Any suggestions?
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