‘Harlan Coben’s Shelter’ review: Mystery shrouds a town in this twisty teen drama

Two teenage boys and a girl stand in the dark in a wooded area.
Adrian Greensmith as Arthur “Spoon” Spindell, left, Jaden Michael as Mickey Bolitar and Abby Corrigan as Ema Winslow in “Harlan Coben’s Shelter” on Prime Video.
(Michael Parmelee / Prime Video)
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Harlan Coben is one of those writers who is famous to millions and unknown to me, whose thrillers and mysteries go straight to the top of the charts and are translated into dozens of languages. A deal with Netflix has led to adaptations of his works in Poland, France and the U.K.; a 2006 film adaptation of his “Tell No One,” won four Césars, the French equivalent of the Oscars.

“Harlan Coben’s Shelter,” premiering Friday on Prime Video, is the first American adaptation of his works and the first to come with his name in the title, and while some viewers may gather that this is a story about someone named Harlan Coben who has a shelter — Harlan Coben does sound like a name a writer like Harlan Coben might make up — it is not.

Based on Coben’s 2012 YA novel — and, seemingly, two subsequent volumes that complete a trilogy — “Shelter” features a character named Mickey Bolitar, spun off from his Myron Bolitar books. Myron is a basketball player-turned-sports agent who gets mixed up in enough murders to have kept a series going for 11 volumes; Mickey is his teenage nephew, who, in the book, comes to stay with him after his father is killed in a car crash — Mickey was there too — and his mother winds up in rehab.


Myron is mentioned in passing here, but in the adaptation, Mickey (Jaden Michael), is being looked after by his aunt Shira (Constance Zimmer), perhaps because “Shelter” comes from Amazon Studios while a Myron Bolitar series is being prepped by Netflix. The upside is that Zimmer is one of the series’ delights. In this telling, Shira is back in town — the fictional Kasselton, N.J. — after years away, living incompatibly with Mickey in the house of her parents/his grandparents in their absence. (When they return, they turn out to be Peter Reigert and Adrienne Barbeau.) As to other significant departures from the text, I am ignorant, but as Coben developed and writes for the series with daughter Charlotte Coben, we can regard this edition as authorized.

Mickey has been living out of the country, where his parents were involved in unspecified good works; there’s nothing in his character to suggest a cosmopolitan background, but he does speak fluent Spanish with his mother, Kitty, played by Dominican American actress Narci Regina. (His father’s side is Jewish, like Coben, which we understand by the occasional word of Yiddish.)

Two women sit on top of a roof on a sunny day.
Hannah (Missi Pyle, left) is Shira’s (Constance Zimmer) former best friend.
(Michael Parmelee / Prime Video Video)

A new kid in school — that old trope — he quickly gathers friends, outsiders like himself, and enemies, the usual popular set. The characters describe familiar types, but the writing and performances make them feel original, individual. On Team Mickey are Arthur, who goes by Spoon (Adrian Greensmith), a nerdy extrovert, and Ema (Abby Corrigan), sullen and goth; opposing them are aggressive jocks Troy (Brian Altemus) and Buck (Antonio Cipriano). Cheer squad leader Rachel (Sage Linder), who goes out with Troy, is something of a neutral party, a swing vote. And then there is Ashley (Samantha Bugliaro), also new to school, who seems prepped to become a love interest for Mickey but disappears almost immediately, initiating the series’ first mystery.

Others will follow. Walking home, Mickey hears music coming from a big Victorian house, dripping with vines — one of those not-like-the-other manses many of us will remember passing with head down and a faster step — inhabited by a local enigma known as Bat Lady (Tovah Feldshuh). It’s a song called “Shelter,” the very song his family had been singing along to on the night of the crash. As Mickey goes to investigate, Bat Lady appears on the porch to tell him his father is not dead, then disappears inside behind a locked door.

Why should this all be going down in suburban New Jersey? Why was the Hellmouth in Sunnydale? What is it about Bayport that kept the Hardy Boys so busy? The short answer is that Coben hails from there, and lives there still, in a house that looks a lot like the Bat Lady’s in “Shelter.”


It is a property of adolescent entertainments from “Archie” to “Riverdale” that adults can be less than helpful — beside the point, if not actively dangerous. Authority figures (police, teachers) tend to be unreliable, untrustworthy. They write off kids’ concerns as imaginary; they get the wrong end of the stick and stick with it, or are simply busy elsewhere, or ineffectual, leaving the young to sort things out, gather clues, take improbable risks and protect themselves. (Fenton Hardy might have offered an opinion to Frank and Joe now and then, but I can’t remember him ever getting up from his chair or pulling them out of a jam.)

With adults often acting like children, it’s up to the children to act like adults. This is flattering to young audiences, of course, and makes for easier identification with the story — because, psychologically if not practically speaking, that’s how it often works in the world. (Well, perhaps it’s different nowadays, if what I read in the papers about overprotective parents and overdependent children is true — but independence is still the ideal.)

Here again, teens take the lead. Yet “Shelter” spends more time than usual building out the adult storylines, particularly Shira’s relations with former high school BFF Hannah (Missi Pyle) and former boyfriend Chief Taylor (Lee Aaron Rosen), the town’s top cop, now married to Hannah, and the father of Troy. Their stories don’t have much to do with the main action, but they do build out a series as much invested in character as in plot, and which takes steps to bring nuance to characters who otherwise might be perfunctorily sketched.

The series is a welter of twists and turns, conspiracies and connections, leading to some dark (one might say “adult”) places, and which can be difficult to follow, especially given the number of characters who are not what they seem. But there is a difference between story and storytelling, and in between passages of action and suspense, of which there is a well-executed good deal, scenes slow down and stretch out and let a little quiet in.

In one lovely tableau, the three heroes, exhausted, are seated side by side on a couch in what amounts to their secret headquarters. Mickey lays his head on Spoon’s shoulder, and Ema curls up against Mickey. It’s a striking moment, real and true, and, more than anything in the plot, it’s why I readily recommend “Harlan Coben’s Shelter.”