Book review: The Stranger

THE prolific Harlan Coben sells by the proverbial bucket load: with The Stranger, we are in territory he has revisited often, the edifice of American bourgeois civility and the perfect families which support it.

Harlan Coben

Orion, £8.99;

Kindle £4.99.

With Coben there is always something rotten at the heart of this Norman Rockwell suburbia, where the middle-aged, wrapped in cotton wool, have nothing more important to worry about than whether little Frankie is making the sixth grade lacrosse team.

Until, that is, a stranger comes a knocking, and a little ol’ hospitality is the last thing playing on his mind.

Coben’s forensic attention to domestic detail — the invasion of social media into the home — is as relentless as verdigris in The Stranger, which pivots on the chance encounter between socially smug Adam Price, a father of two young boys, and a stranger.

Price, having a beer with managers and bankers in the local American Legion Hall, is warned by the stranger that his wife has been telling him porkies about her last pregnancy.

Rather than ask his wife, Corinne, about the alleged deceit, Price waters the seed of doubt planted by the stranger.

He plays detective on her bank account, and when a bill from Novelty Funsy paints her in a less than reverential light, a Pandora’s Box is well and truly opened. 

As Coben ruthlessly disentangles the Prices’ marriage, the ensuing discordance sparks simultaneous avalanches in the lives of other victims of the mysterious stranger, all of whom have one thing in common: secrets best kept buried.

A young woman who prostitutes herself to pay college fees; a fiancée coping with the payback of sex tapes released on the Internet, and a mother who invests in a fake pregnancy test.

The story switches from first to fifth gear in a nano-second after Price confronts his wife with his investigative booty. 

She, overnight, disappears, raising the suspicions of neighbours who consider themselves like glue in the community.

Armed only with a credit car invoice, a retired cop, and a techno savvy son who inserted a locator app in his mum’s phone — as you do — before she hightailed out of town, Price begins a frustrating search for his missing spouse. 

As the hurdles mount up — stolen money, unexplained phone calls, more strangers in the night — Price sniffs a greater and complex conspiracy.

There are, admittedly, implausible resolutions in The Stranger, but if you are a sucker for the Coben diet of the corny, cliché and unoriginal, as everybody of note seems to be in Cedarfield, ‘loaded with hedge fund managers...and other financial masters of the universe types,’ you will surf the improbable plot-turns with patience and grace.

Coben mixes the saccharine with the toxic.

In Cedarfield, men are drawn to two types of women: those who offer lust filled nights with legs in the air, or moonlight walks and canapés.

The wholesome Price is at home with the latter, despite the occasional temptation at work, but the creature comforts of a strong marriage are no bar to the corrosive forces of envy and betrayal in small town Americana, where scrutiny is both a hobby and a blood sport.

Coben the writer eschews the predilection for excessive violence so endemic among his Scandinavian brethren like Jo Nesbo: this is a bodice-ripper free zone. 

Coben’s strength is a plot with more twists than Chubby Checker, and a broader message that on-line privacy in the home and paranoia are a volatile mix.


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