By Dennis Drabelle
Monday, March 29, 2010; C03
By Harlan Coben
Dutton. 388 pp. $27.95
It may already be too late for this review to be written. I finished "Caught," the new thriller by that galloping bestseller-machine Harlan Coben, only 24 hours before sitting down at my computer, but already some details of its intricate plot are eluding my grasp. No doubt that's mostly my fault, but it may also have something to do with the brain-taxing plethora of secrets held and coverups performed by inhabitants of the New Jersey town where the action takes place.
That action begins straightforwardly enough. Narrating in the first person, Dan Mercer, who works with kids at a community center, walks into a trap. A TV reporter, Wendy Tynes, has been pretending to be an underage girl on a Web site for pedophiles. This is a sting to catch Dan, who, by responding to a phone call and entering a seemingly empty house, appears to have taken the bait. Now the voice shifts to the third person, leaving Dan in big trouble.
Yet at a preliminary hearing, the case against him proves flimsy. Dan says he showed up not for an assignation but in answer to the caller's plea for help -- that's what he does, after all: help troubled kids. The defense attorney who uses this and other testimony to poke holes in the case is the flamboyantly gay Flair Hickory, who, in addition to knowing the law, has a way with a quip. When Wendy glosses one of her chat room comments by admitting, "I was pretending to be a thirteen-year-old girl," Flair shoots back, "Ah, who hasn't?"
But after getting the charges against Dan dismissed (on the basis of entrapment), Flair exits the stage, never to return. Not that anything sinister happened to him; this is just a busy book, so much so that the author feels free to dispose of a promising character as abruptly as you or I might a used Kleenex. Wendy's TV station is similarly inclined. After the case against Dan is thrown out, so is Wendy -- of her job.
Meanwhile, young Haley McWaid -- the kind of nymphet that a pedophile might target -- has gone missing. And bad things are happening to a group of men, Dan included, who were not only members of the same class a generation ago at Princeton University; they also roomed together as freshmen. As Wendy reflects, four of the five "had been taken down by scandals within the past year. That was a hell of a coincidence."
In a way, it's a good thing that Wendy is unemployed. She has so much to do: mull over that Old Nassau coincidence; try to nail Dan, whose release hasn't changed her mind about his guilt; raise her teenage son; and find the strength to forgive the drunk driver who made her a single parent some years back by killing her husband in a car accident.
At this point, I've only hinted at the sinuousness of Coben's rococo plot, and you may be scratching your head already. I'm pretty sure it all worked out in the end, with no loose ends, but I wouldn't want to take a test. There are many things to admire in this tour de force of storytelling, but big-picture verisimilitude is not one of them. A town with a skeleton or two in its collective closet may be plausible, but not a burg where virtually everybody is hiding something and all the secrets interlock and reinforce each other like tiles in a grand and seamless mosaic. What a passion for order this writer and his faithful readers -- and they are legion -- must nurture in their bosoms!
For all its strands of mystery, the book offers little suspense and few characters who escape being caricatures. But these shortcomings don't detract seriously from the impressiveness of the windup toy that Coben, like a hobbyist with a machine shop in his basement, has soldered together for the reader's amusement. "Caught" will be welcomed by those who -- on long flights or at home after a hard day's work -- prefer thrillers to sudoku or sitcoms. Nothing wrong with that. Just don't pick up "Caught" expecting it to be anything more than an elaborate filler of time.
Drabelle is the mysteries editor of Book World.