Lessons From the Master of the Twist
By A.J. Colucci
Crime writer Harlan Coben is arguably today’s Master of the Who-Done-It. The author is known for leaving a trail of breadcrumbs along the way to fool readers into thinking they know the ending when they don’t. FOOL ME ONCE is the latest novel to demonstrate his skill at the double-twist. It grabs you from page one, and tosses your sensibilities around like a ragdoll, until the shocking end. I started the book early morning, broke for a quick lunch and closed it around midnight. I’m still not sure what my family ate for dinner. If you read Coben, you know what I’m talking about. Since his breakout novel, TELL NO ONE, he’s been churning out bestsellers one after another, including the critically acclaimed Myron Bolitar series.
In FOOL ME ONCE we meet Major Maya Stern, an Army pilot home from the war. Her husband has been murdered right in front of her in a robbery gone wrong. Left to care for her daughter alone, she sets up a nanny cam—and sees the unthinkable. There on the footage is her husband, Joe, playing with her daughter. The shock of seeing Joe on video sends Maya on the mission of her life, searching for an answer to a bitter question: Is her husband alive and not to be trusted, or is it herself she can’t trust? And the twists keep coming. Four months ago, while Maya was in Kuwait, her sister Claire was also killed, and now there seems to be a link between the deaths of Joe and Clair.
Strong female protagonists seem to be trending more than ever among thriller authors, and Maya is refreshingly gender-neutral. Fearless, dogged and unsentimental, “Maya” would have been just as believable as “Harry.” For Coben, the character came to mind on a trip abroad.
“I was fortunate enough to be one of ITW’s authors who got to travel overseas on a USO tour,” he said, referring to Operation Thriller. “It was a tremendous honor, and while I was on a certain European base, I met a female Air Force pilot who was just so kick-ass. She’s nothing like Maya, but I think the seed got planted right there and then.” In general he finds that creating characters is an intuitive process. “It is very hard to describe how it happens. You think about their experiences, their background, their culture, their relationships – and something sort of comes to the surface.”
After the death of her husband, Maya moves almost ghost-like between opposing worlds, none of which are very comforting. She lives at home with her daughter, now fatherless, but she’s not exactly a hands-on parent. Her military buddies seem to understand her best, but offer little solace in wake of her grief and the PTSD she’s developed since returning from the war. Then there’s her husband’s well-to-do family—the essence of high-society, fancy schooling and money-caused neurosis—who never really welcomed her. Looming over everything is the guilt Maya feels, not only from witnessing the death of her husband, but also from her actions in Iraq, where she lost some of her fellow soldiers and mistakenly killed a group of civilians. Maya still can’t keep the screams out of her nightmares. The tragedies, the action, and the danger keep coming and you begin to understand Maya’s hard core.
I’m usually good at figuring out endings, at the same time ruining the story for myself, but it’s a habit I can’t seem to break. Knowing Coben’s reputation for twists and hearing the buzz about FOOL ME ONCE, I made it my mission to figure out the ending. But, wow, I did not see that one coming. I won’t give away any spoilers, but Coben does something that I’ve never seen done successfully in a thriller. He said there isn’t really a secret to surprising readers. “There is always some sleight of hand, I guess, but I don’t really know what it is. The answer is right there in plain view. I love the fact that the reader will be fooled—there’s a challenge for all my thriller brethren—but for me it has always been more important for the ending to be emotionally satisfying. I want it to mean something to you. I want it to move you. The surprise, if I’m doing it right, should be an emotional blindside.”
However he does it, it’s working for Coben. He has over 60 million books in print worldwide, and his last eight novels debuted on the #1 NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list. His books have been published in 43 languages around the globe. He has won an Edgar, Shamus and Anthony – the first thriller writer to obtain all three. Demand for his novels won’t dissipate anytime soon.
“We’re living in the Golden Age of crime fiction,” Coben said, and contributes this to great writing and tremendous variety. “Readers have never been more demanding – and our writing has never been better or more relevant. That’s why we are flourishing.”
According to Coben, and I’m sure Netflix would agree, we’re also living in the golden age of television. He just finished a ten-part series in the UK for Sky1 called THE FIVE. “It is a visual novel in ten chapters. That was how I thought about it and that’s how it came out. It was a thrill to make, but I don’t think anyone would have made it ten, fifteen years ago.”
“The publishing industry has always seemed wackadoodle,” he said, when asked about changes in the industry. “As a writer, I’ve always been like a petulant child sticking his fingers in his ears and shouting, ‘La, la, la, I can’t hear you’ when people start talking about the ‘industry.’ We have indie publishing now and Amazon and eBooks and the Internet and so, by gosh, isn’t everything different?” Although, he admits, not from his standpoint as an author. “It has always been tough to make it. The odds have always been against you. In the end, I still believe the book matters above all else. Way, way above all else. If I write the best book I can, the rest of it—royalty rates, marketing, eBook prices, whatever—seem to take care of themselves. Is that naïve and simplistic? You bet—but I highly recommend it. If you really want to give yourself the best chance you can, concentrate on making the book the best it can be. It’s no guarantee, of course, but it is the one thing you can control.”
He said the key to writing is to write. “Duh, right? But it is true. Get rid of the paralysis. Give yourself permission to suck and get that first draft down. You’ll improve it later. You can always fix blank pages – you can’t fix no pages. Remember what Voltaire said: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”