Harlan Coben has such a big reputation that expectations are always high when he writes a new book. Stay Close was an eagerly awaited release after his venture into young adult fiction, and here we’re firmly back in crime thriller territory. It’s also a return to the New Jersey suburbia that Coben depicts in his best works such as Tell No One and Just One Look.
There are three main character threads to this one – Megan, Ray and Broome. Try to stay with us because it gets complicated. Megan’s a middle-class mother who drives her daughter to soccer practice weekly, has a breakfast island in the kitchen, and is married to a lawyer. However, she used to be called Cassie, a stripper and all-round good time girl in Jersey’s very own run-down gambling town, Atlantic City. She gave up that life 17 years ago just after the disappearance of Stuart Green, a customer in one of the strip clubs she danced in.
Broome was the police detective who worked the Green case. No body was ever discovered and Broom has been mulling it over all these years, visiting and trying to comfort the Green family. He contemplates what it’s like when a family member disappears completely. Ray, meanwhile, is a washed up photographer. He drinks too much and has been reduced to working as a fake paparazzi. Wealthy nobodies hire the company he works for to photograph their bah mitzfahs, parties and even dinner dates. When he’s not doing that, Ray seems to wander around in a daze thinking about the things that went wrong in his life, especially an unspecified bloody incident.
Now a young show-off called Carlton Flynn has disappeared, 17 years to the day after Stuart Green. Like Green he frequented Atlantic City’s strip bars and Broome makes the connection. Bored and curious about the old days, Megan is tempted to visit Atlantic City’s clubs again by her old friend, the barmaid Lorraine. And Ray gets beaten over the head with a bat when he’s mugged for his camera. Turns out he’d inadvertently snapped a photo of Carlton Flynn while visiting the ruins where said unspecified bloody incident occured, just before Flynn disappeared. The characters are drawn together as the threads of mysteries new and old are woven into Coben’s plotline.
Just like Atlantic City itself, the characters are big, brash, clicheed and have a rusty edge to them. There’s no shortage of cynical wisecracks and crude observations. And there’s just about the right amount of brutality as victims – both innocent and guilty – begin to pile up. Coben killed off his freaky Korean hitman for hire Eric Wu in an earlier novel, but here he introduces Ken and Barbie, the good looking fundamentalist Christians who work for the mob and love dishing out torture. Odd, repressed and menacing, they’re not the only killers lurking in these pages.
Though Stay Close is not quite as gripping as some of his previous thrillers, the author continues to excel with his storytelling. His conversational tone throughout makes the book feel like light reading, but his hooks, twists and chapter-closing cliff hangers keep you turning the pages. One moment you’re wondering whether Megan’s going to be in trouble with her husband because of her past, the next gravely worried that Ken and Barbie are about to murder a stripper. It’s a great read and you’ll probably tear your way through it.
Stay Close has been adapted into a Netflix series. Also see the French adaptation of No Second Chance.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars