The Woods by Harlan Coben

I don't read much American detective fiction for some reason, but I know Harlan Coben is a popular and prolific thriller writer and I downloaded The Woods as an audiobook for a discounted price. A lot of Coben's novels are part of a series but this is a standalone novel.

The Woods by [Coben, Harlan]
The main character is Paul 'Cope' Copeland, a county prosecutor in New Jersey whose sister Camille disappeared from summer camp many years ago along - apparently murdered by a fellow camper who is later convicted of killing a number of other teenagers (although not, in fact, of Camille's murder, as her body has never been found). Also never found was the body of her friend Gil Perez. At the start of the book, Paul is called upon in the course of his job as a prosecutor to view the body of Manolo Santiago, who has been found murdered. Except Manolo, Paul immediately realises, is actually Gil. So where has been Gil been all these years that he was assumed dead? Why do the Perez family refuse to accept that Manolo and Gil are one and the same? And does this mean that the mystery of Camille's disappearance might be solved too?

Meanwhile, Lucy Gold, the daughter of the owner of the summer camp who was sued for negligence after the murders all those years ago and a teenage sweetheart of Paul's, is now a college lecturer - and she's horrified to realise that an anonymous creative writing journal submitted by a student is quite clearly an account of what happened between her and Paul on the night Camille and the others disappeared. Who knows their secret, and what do they want from her?

If this all sounds a bit unlikely, then yes, it is: while moderately gritty in parts, this is one of those thrillers in which reality is slightly heightened and most of the characters, from Paul's sinister Russian 'uncle' Sasha to his investigator Loren Muse and Lucy's elderly stoner father Ira, are somewhat larger than life. Paul himself is a relatively likeable protagonist although there does come a point where you start to wonder how much more tragedy one man can take - his sister was murdered, his mother abandoned him, his father has just died a broken man and he is bringing up his little girl alone after his wife's death from cancer. He's also embroiled in prosecuting a rape case in which the accused are spoilt rich white frat boys and the victim is an African American teenage stripper, despite threats from the boys' powerful parents, which is admirably worthy stuff. It would have been easy for Paul to seem a little too saintly to be interesting, but fortunately Coben does give him something of an edge as the story progresses.

There really isn't a great deal more I can say about this book. It's an enjoyable mystery with various twists and it was certainly interesting enough to keep me engaged until the end, although it doesn't feel especially plausible. I particularly liked what we discovered about Paul's Russian parents and their departure from the Soviet Union, which was an interesting sub-plot to the primary mystery. The writing is fairly pacey although there were times when it felt that Paul's digressions into his family life and views on various topics were rather unnecessary and more about padding the word count than building his character and moving the plot along.

All in all, it's rather like watching an extended episode of a well-made American crime series - it's entertaining, but you probably won't remember much about it a week later. I wouldn't necessarily rush to read another Harlan Coben novel, but equally I'd happily read one if there happened to be one lying around, if you see what I mean.