To help me break out of a reading slump at the onset of the COVID-19 health emergency, I turned to the books I’ve always trusted to draw me in: thrillers. These three books were among the first I read at that time.
While you can never go wrong with a book by Harlan Coben, the other two didn’t serve me quite so well. I had a twitchy, uneasy feeling while reading both The Holdout and Before She Knew Him. There were specific reasons why both of those books bothered me, and I’ll try to talk about those reasons without giving away too much information in my reviews.
But I’d like to include a caveat here for my comments on those two books: I was reading them during a time of general upset and unease, and it’s possible that general feeling affected my reactions. Part of what bothered me pertained to the subject matter of each, but perhaps I would have faced them with more equanimity under more normal circumstances.
The Boy From the Woods by Harlan Coben
Coben, Harlan. The Boy From the Woods
Grand Central Publishing, 2020
The novel opens with a news story from April 18, 1986, about a feral boy, between 6 and 8 years old, found living in the woods in New Jersey.
Then the narrative moves forward to April 23, 2020. Soon we meet the formidable Hester Crimstein, well-known and powerful defense attorney who has appeared in Coben’s earlier books. Her teenage grandson, Matthew, seeks Hester’s help in finding out what happened to his friend, Naomi Pine, who has stopped coming to school and doesn’t answer her phone.
When the boy was discovered in the woods 34 years earlier, he was found because he used to come visit 6-year-old David, Hester’s son, in the woods behind the Crimstein house. Hester and her husband long ago gave up the big house to David’s family, where Matthew and his mother continue to live since David’s death in a car crash 10 years earlier. Hester knows that, to find Naomi, she’ll need the help of the boy from the woods, known as Wilde.
Harlan Coben’s books always combine compelling characterization with pulse-pounding plots,
but this book’s emphasis on characters made it a comforting reading experience during the current health pandemic. All of the characters in this novel care about other people and want to help them. Wilde is a particularly interesting character, even if his backstory does challenge credulity a bit. And I especially appreciated a subplot involving the 70+-year-old Hester and the local sheriff.
The novel’s ending suggests the possibility that we might meet Wilde again. Whether that happens or not, The Boy from the Woods gave me comfort during troubling times.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
The Holdout by Graham Moore
Moore, Graham. The Holdout
Random House, 2020
Ten years ago, 15-year-old Jessica Silver disappeared. When her teacher, Bobby Nock, is tried for her murder, everyone expects a quick conviction. But juror Maya Seale doubts his guilt and manages to convince the other jurors to acquit Nock.
Now, for the tenth anniversary of the Silver murder trial, a news channel plans to reassemble the jurors for a documentary. Maya, now a defense attorney herself, originally refuses to participate but reluctantly agrees when one of the original jurors, Rick Leonard, claims to have evidence that Nock was in fact guilty.
When Rick is found murdered in Maya’s hotel room the first night of the documentary reunion, Maya quickly becomes the prime suspect and is soon arrested and charged. She is represented by a distinguished attorney from the law firm where she works. Although he insists that she stay away from the case and leave the investigation to the firm’s team, Maya just can’t leave things alone.
About four years ago I served on a jury for a murder trial. The experience was emotionally draining, but I was impressed and soothed by how seriously all the jurors took their responsibility. Initially we did not all agree, but the discussions always remained civil and focused on the evidence.
There are lots of potential plot complications and red herrings in The Holdout that keep the story moving. But because of my own jury experience, I felt uncomfortable reading most of this novel. Everything that happens after Maya is charged felt outlandishly wrong. If I hadn’t been a juror myself, I probably would have accepted the story, in which all the pieces eventually fit neatly together, at face value. Instead, I found the story melodramatically improbable.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson
Swanson, Peter. Before She Knew Him
William Morrow, 2019
Henrietta (Hen) and her husband Lloyd have recently moved into a house in suburban Boston, where they hope to live a quiet life. Hen, an artist, has rented studio space nearby where she can work on the children’s book illustrations she’s been hired to do and on her own etchings. Since she’s finally found medication that works to control her bipolar disorder, she’s hoping to get her career back on track.
When the neighbors Matthew and Mira invite Hen and Lloyd over, Hen doesn’t want to go but agrees to placate Lloyd. Hen is instantly drawn to Matthew when she sees him, although she doesn’t know why. When she sees an object displayed on the mantel in Matthew’s study, she begins to suspect he’s a serial killer.
I picked this book up because I’d read Swanson’s earlier novel, The Kind Worth Killing, and found it intriguing. But I became wary of Before She Knew Him right away with the revelation of Hen’s bipolar disorder.
I’m opposed to the use of mental illness as a mystery/thriller trope, and it shows up early here when Hen tells the police her suspicions about Matthew. It’s easy to dismiss the theories of a crazy woman, after all.
As it turns out, this novel goes well beyond the simple usage of bipolar disorder as characterization. I can’t say more without giving too much away, but the whole basis for the rest of the story—for why the novel’s title is Before She Knew Him—makes no sense to me.
There is a need for realistic fictional portrayals of how characters struggle to deal with mental health issues, but those portrayals should focus on otherwise well developed characters who happen to live with mental illness. Before She Knew Him doesn’t do that in any meaningful way.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown