Thursday, August 07, 2008

Home Library: The Harlan Coben Section

The career of Harlan Coben can be divided into two parts: the first is the Myron Bolitar era, during which Coben wrote seven novels featuring sports agent Myron Bolitar and his best friend, the wealthy (and deadly) sociopath Windsor (Win) Horne Lockwood III. While such a thing may not be everyone’s cup of tea, a series of books about a sports agent (and former All-American basketball star at Duke) who solves crimes with the help of a wealthy sociopath and an assistant (later partner) who at one time had been one-half of the “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling’s” world champion tag-team is my idea of a good time.

Through seven books, Myron, Win, Esperanza traded wisecracks, fought their way out of scrapes, and generally managed to figure out which way was up and solve whatever mystery had landed in their lap. The books included a host of colorful characters, including Myron’s parents, a couple of old-school gangsters known as the Ache brothers, and of course the professional athletes from all sports who somehow managed to find themselves in a heap of trouble, usually of their own making.

The passage that, above all others, proved to me that I would love these books appeared in “Deal Breaker,” Coben’s first. In the scene, Myron is trying to talk Herman Ache, the oldest and wisest of the Ache Brothers, into convincing his brother Frank that he (Frank) should drop the contract on Myron’s life. He’s not having much luck, until Win takes advantage of the fact that Herman has been practicing his golf swing during the entire conversation.

Win sat forward, moving for the first time. “Your club is too far open on your swing, Mr. Ache. Try turning your wrists a little more. Shift your grip to the right a little.”

The sudden change in subject caught everyone by surprise. Herman looked at Win. “I’m sorry. I never caught the name.”

“Windsor Horne Lockwood III.”

“Ah, so you are the immortal Win. Not exactly what I expected.” [Note: early in the book, Coben describes Win’s appearance as being the epitome of east-coast prep school]. He tested the new grip. “Feels odd.”

“Give it a few weeks, Win said. “Do you play often?”

“As often as I can. It’s more than just a game to me. It’s…”

“Sacred,” Win finished for him.

His eyes livened. “Exactly. You play, Mr. Lockwood?”

“Yes.”

“Nothing like it, is there?”

“Nothing,” Win agreed. “Where do you play?”

“Not easy for my kind to find good courses. I joined a club in Westchester. St. Anthony’s. You know it?”

“No.”

“It’s not much of a course. Eighteen holes, of course. Very rocky. You have to be half mountain goat.”

Golf stories. Myron loved them. Didn’t everyone?

“I don’t understand something,” Myron said, playing along. “With all your, uh, influence, why don’t you play anywhere you want?”

Herman and Win looked at him as though he were a naked infidel praying in the Vatican. “Excuse him,” Win said. “Myron does not understand golf. He thinks a nine iron is a vitamin supplement.”

Herman laughed. The hoods joined suit. Myron didn’t get it.

“I understand fine,” Myron said. “Golf is a bunch of silly-dressed men using massive tracts of real estate to play with a ball and stick.”

Myron laughed. No one joined suit. Golfers are not known for their sense of humor.

Herman put the club back in the bag. “A man does not force or buy or bully his way onto a golf course,” he explained. “I have too much respect for the game, for the traditions, to do anything so crass. It would be like putting a gun against a priest’s head to get the front pew.”

“Sacrilege,” Win said.

“Exactly. No real golfer would do it.”

“He has to be invited,” Win added.

“Right. And you don’t merely play a great course. You pay homage to it. I’d love to be invited to one of the world’s great courses. It would be my dream. But it is not meant to be.”

“How about being invited to two of them?” Win asked.

“Two…” Herman stopped. His eyes widened for a millisecond, then quickly dimmed as though afraid he was being teased. “What do you mean?”

Win pointed to a picture on the left wall. “Merion Golf Club,” he said. Then he pointed to a picture on the far wall. “And Pine Valley.”

“What about them?”

“I assume you’ve heard of them?”

“Heard of them?” Herman repeated. “They’re the top two courses on the East Coast, two of the best in the world. Go ahead, name any hole, either course.”

“Sixth hole at Merion.”

Herman’s face glowed like a little kid’s on Christmas morning. “One of the most underrated holes anywhere. It sets up with a semiblind tee-shot to a fairway that favors a soft fade. Start your tee-shot at middle bunker, then cut back to the center, keeping clear of the boundary, which comes in on the right. Long-to-middle iron to the modestly elevated green, careful of the bunkers on the left and right.”

Win smiled. “Very impressive.”

Snore.

“Don’t tell me, Mr. Lockwood, that you’ve played Merion and Pine Valley.” Something well past awe resonated in Herman’s voice.

“I’m a member of both.”

Herman inhaled sharply. Myron half-expected him to cross himself. “A member,” he began incredulously, “of both?”

“I’m a three handicap at Merion,” Win continued. “A five handicap at Pine Valley. And I’d like you to be my guest at both for a weekend. We’ll try to get in seventy-two holes a day, thirty-six at each course. We’ll start at five a.m. Unless that’s too early.”

Herman shook his head. Myron thought his eyes looked teary. “Not too early,” he managed.

“Next weekend okay for you?”

Herman picked up the phone. “Let the girl go,” he said. “And the contract is off. Anyone touches Myron Bolitar, they’re dead.”


If reading that doesn’t put a smile on your face, then these are probably not the books for you.

With “One False Move,” Coben began to take Myron and Win into darker territory, with greater personal stakes for Myron, in particular. But after “Darkest Fear,” the seventh Bolitar book, Coben tired of writing about Myron, and decided to try his hand at thrillers.

And he has succeeded, probably beyond his wildest dreams. The books he writes now are the kind that inspire clich├ęs like “page turner,” “crackling spellbinder,” and “more twists and turns than an amusement park ride.” Though they’re all different, what they have in common is that nothing in them is ever quite as it seems. Even the most ordinary people have secrets, and the people who populate Coben’s thrillers have secrets – some going back as far as twenty years and more – that hold the potential to cause everything in the present to unravel.

Coben is an absolute master of capturing the reader with the very first chapter. Don’t take my word for it, read the first chapter of “Promise Me” (the return of Myron Bolitar, in a different kind of book) and see what you think.

You really can’t go wrong with the books of Harlan Coben.

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