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Harlan Coben has written a number of thrillers and is well known for his use of unresolved events intruding on the character’s present along with multiple plot twists, and his is newest novel, The Stranger, is no exception. While I was definitely drawn into the mystery of this slow-burning, darkly reflective, and intricately plotted thriller, there were a number of weaknesses, from Coben’s wasting of the perfectly good mystery of the eponymous Stranger to his overuse of plot twists, which I felt really detracted from the novel. More on that later.
Adam Price is living the American dream: a beautiful wife, two great sons, a great job and a large, luxurious house. This dream comes to an end however, when he is approached by the Stranger who shatters his world with four simple words “She wasn’t really pregnant”. The encounter is brief, the kind of thing you would laugh off, But the seeds of doubt planted by the Stranger quickly becomes a devastating certainty, leading Adam confronts his wife, Corinne, about her fake pregnancy, only to see her disappear the next day. Now faced with the possibility of losing everything he holds dear, and uncomfortable questions from the police about his wife’s disappearance, Adam begins his frantic search for his wife. As his search uncovers more and more secrets, however, Adam discover something far darker than Corinne’s deception, something that could not only ruins lives, but end them.
The Stranger is a great character: mysterious, appearing out of no-where and imparting knowledge of secrets he should have no way of knowing about, and I think that Coben really could have done a lot more with him. Was the Stranger wronged by someone in his past and decided to go on crusade against deceit? Or is he really a supernatural entity, tricking people into self-destruction by revealing their loved ones deepest, darkest secrets? And just what is his connection with Corinne? I was disappointed then, that after his initial appearance at the start of the book, the Stranger is largely ignored and when his motivation is finally revealed, he turns out to be little more than a common extortionist who is unceremoniously arrested about half-way through the book.
The fact that the Stranger is little more than a red herring leads me to another problem with the book: it’s too convoluted. Coben is known for his use of plot twists and red herrings, but here it seems like either he didn’t know where he was going with the plot or his editor did a rather poor job of it. Subplots like Adam helping an old man stay in his house are introduced and then forgotten, characters and red herrings, like suggestions that Bob has been embezzling from the lacrosse team, that were barely mentioned suddenly become important later on with little explanation, and the revelation at the end of where Adam’s wife has gone and who was responsible was so unexpected and unrelated to the Stranger plot that I thought I had accidently skipped a chapter or something.
It might seem like I really didn’t like The Stranger, and that’s actually the problem, for the first half of the book I really did enjoy it. If you look at the basic premise, Coben had some really great ideas, but he added so many twists and subplots that the whole thing fell apart. Still, despite its failings The Stranger is a decent thriller that I’d recommend to patrons (as long as I know they’re able to follow really really convoluted plots). Overall, I’d give The Stranger a 5.4 out of 10.
Oh, and if anyone has read any of Coben’s other books, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on how they compare to The Stranger.