Sometimes, the best writers set themselves challenges by posing a plot problem that appears to deny a plausible solution. One such was back in 2021 when, in The Perfect Lie, Jo Spain pulled the wool over our eyes. There, the deception hinged on a few words – and our (wrong) assumptions.
In his latest novel, Harlan Coben – to use the metaphor of Houdini – has wrapped himself in so many chains and padlocks that it seems impossible that he can set himself free. Why? Try this. Five years ago, David Burroughs was jailed for life for murdering his three year-old son, Matthew, with a baseball bat. He now languishes in the protected section of a high security jail, alongside child rapists, cannibals, and other monsters. After refusing to see any visitors for five years he is finally forced to see one – because he omitted to fill in the annual paperwork. It is his former sister-in-law Rachel; his wife, Cheryl has, inevitably, divorced him. Rachel shows David a photo (taken by a friend) of a family group at an amusement park. On the edge of the picture is a little boy, clutching the hand of an adult, otherwise out of picture. It is Matthew.
Coben gives us a drive-through account of the back story. David Burroughs was home-alone with Matthew that night. Cheryl, a surgeon, was at work. David was in a bad mood, put his son to bed without a bedtime story, and proceeded to get outside of the best part of a bottle of Bourbon. Somehow awakened by a sixth sense that something was wrong, or perhaps by the smell of blood, David staggered to his son’s bedroom only to find a mangled and unrecognisable corpse on the bed.
The first key to the mystery is, of course, that the shattered boy’s corpse was just that – unrecognisable. It was, however, in Matthew’s bed, wearing Matthew’s pyjamas. When, a little while later a baseball bat, with David’s fingerprints all over it, is found buried in the garden, David’s status changes from bereaved father, through suspect, to convicted killer.
The next key has to be putting David in a situation – i.e. no longer behind bars – where he can investigate the possibility that the child in the photograph is Matthew, and prove that the murdered boy in Matthew’s bed was someone else. The Governor of Briggs Penitentiary is Philip Mackenzie, and he has history with David Burroughs. David’s dad, Lenny, was, long ago, a grunt in Vietnam with Phil. The pair survived and went on to become partners in crime prevention as precinct cops. Now, Phil is just months away from retirement and a double pension, while Lenny is in the advanced stages of dementia. Suffice it to say there is a fairly improbable break-out from Briggs but this is, after all, crime-fiction.
Coben then throws a fairly heavy spanner into the works by revealing that at a rough stage in their marriage, when Cheryl and David were unable to conceive, Cheryl booked an appointment at a sperm donor clinic. This cleverly opens up all manner of potential twists and questions, which the author exploits to the maximum. It certainly had me guessing right up to the final few pages. If I say this a typically American slick thriller, it is meant as an entirely positive description. Somehow – and I won’t say they are better than British writers – American novelists such as Coben, Connolly, Baldacci and Kellerman produce a polished and gleaming product which has, to extend the automobile metaphor, a distinctive ‘new car smell’. I Will Find You is published by Century and is out now.