Death in the ‘burbs

Special to The Times

“When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter,” says Dr. Marc Seidman at the start of Harlan Coben’s new novel, “No Second Chance.” It’s the sort of carefully baited hook that has elevated Coben’s literary status from genre paperback writer to an author of international bestsellers.

His last two novels over as many years, “Tell No One” and “Gone for Good,” were successful not only in this country but also in Britain, France and Italy. The new thriller from Dutton, which debuted earlier this month at No. 5 on the New York Times bestseller list and sits at No. 11 on this week’s Los Angeles Times list, has been selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club to be its first international selection, covering 15 countries with sales anticipated at a million copies.

His novels are as fast-paced and suspenseful as any thriller, but with their New Jersey settings and more emotional themes, they are not obvious global blockbusters. Yet, Coben taps into something deeper, something not expected in the genre.

“That opening sentence just came to me,” Coben said of “No Second Chance.” “I loved it. I’d been wanting to write a story about the strength and redemptive power of a father’s love. What better way than to have him awake from a 12-day coma to find his wife dead and their 6-month-old daughter missing?” It is that focus on family relationships that sets him apart.


“I was a little concerned over how ‘Tell No One’ would do overseas,” Coben admitted recently while on a book tour stopover in L.A. “It wasn’t about serial killers or conspiracies that go all the way to the White House. I write about ordinary people in extraordinary situations, usually involving the powerful bonds of family. I guess what we found out is that you don’t have to live in New Jersey -- or America -- to identify with these people.”

Coben certainly identifies with them.

There are autobiographical references scattered throughout his novels. Like all of his protagonists -- from his series sleuth, sports agent Myron Bolitar, to “No Second Chance’s” hapless Dr. Seidman -- he’s a Jersey boy who has lived all of his 41 years in the Garden State.

The house belonging to “Gone For Good’s” leading character, David Beck, is the home where Coben grew up in Livingston, N.J. The middle-class neighborhood comes direct from his memory. He now lives in Ridgewood, a commuter town an hour from Manhattan, with his wife, Dr. Anne Armstrong Coben, and their four children, the oldest of whom is 9.

“Anne was an inner-city pediatrician, like my lead in ‘Tell No One,’ ” Coben said. “Easy research. Then she became the medical director of Covenant House in Newark. The hero of ‘Gone For Good’ is a director of Covenant House.”

He was a college student working toward a degree in political science (“a euphemism for ‘I have no idea what to do with my life’ ”) when he began writing fiction. “During the summers, I was a travel guide in Spain,” he said. “Not because I’m a brilliant linguist but because my grandfather owned a travel agency. I decided to write a book using those experiences. The result is a terrible, pretentious, self-absorbed first novel that’s hidden away in a drawer somewhere.”

The summer job turned into a full-time occupation after graduation. “I’d set up trips, do the brochures. ‘Three days in Rome, two days in Florence, two days in Venice’ type of trips. I did that for eight years, from 1984 until 1992.”

During that period, inspired primarily by William Goldman’s “Marathon Man” (not surprisingly a thriller with a hero beset by severe family problems), Coben wrote and published his first two suspense novels, “Play Dead” and “Miracle Cure.”

“Not too many people noticed,” he said. “If you’ve got a copy of ‘Play Dead,’ then you’ve been in my basement.”

In 1993, a literary agent suggested he write a crime novel featuring a female sports agent, following the then-current trend toward women protagonists. “I tried it, but it just didn’t work for me.”

But when he put a little of himself into the mix and came up with the glib Jersey-born sports agent Myron Bolitar, something clicked. “A lot of him is me, and a lot is my wish fulfillment. Same sensibilities, but he’s smarter, funnier, tougher, plays better basketball. I gave him something I wanted and denied him something that I have. He longs for my family and home life in the ‘burbs, and I wish I had his parents and their continuing relationship.” (Coben’s parents died when he was in his 20s.)

The first novel in the series, “Deal Breaker,” debuted in 1995 with a print run of 15,000, a paltry number for a paperback. Six entries later the whodunits had amassed an assortment of awards (including the big three -- Edgar, Shamus and Anthony) and a fan base large and strong enough to move Myron and Coben from paperback into hardcover.

So you’d think he’d stick with a sure thing, right?

But three years ago, he was struck by an idea that wouldn’t work for his series hero. He gave Myron a rest and penned “Tell No One,” a breathless thriller in which a small-town pediatrician discovers that the wife he thought was murdered eight years before is alive and in peril. His publisher figured the novel would sell slightly better than the Bolitars. But the book proved so potent, Dell Publishing had to go back to press nine times during the first few weeks.

The author followed that with “Gone For Good,” another stand-alone. “The idea was to tell a story about the effect murder has on a family, but not the victim’s family. Suppose it’s your brother who kills the girl next door in a quiet, suburban neighborhood, then runs away.” That book outsold “Tell.”

So what’s next? Coben doesn’t like talking about future projects. (“It sort of lets the air out of the balloon.”) But he thinks he’s going to try to make a female protagonist work this time.

Might she hail from suburban New Jersey? With a shocker of a family problem?

“Good guess,” he said. “Let John Grisham have his lawyers in the courtroom. I’m doing fine with my families in the ‘burbs.”