I read Harlan Coben’s Promise Me in a quest to broaden my literary horizons – that is, I’m not widely read in mysteries or thrillers. In fact, even the great hook about Promise Me, that it’s Myron Bolitar’s return, was lost on me since I haven’t read the prior seven books. But if I’ve learned something as a reader, it’s to always branch into genres you haven’t read, because you’ll often be surprised. This adventurous spirit brought me to John Le Carre and Connie Willis and my life – and bookshelves – are the richer for it.
But perhaps I should have consulted with friends in the genre before I chose Harlan Coben’s book as my foray. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed it enough that I finished it in one single day (I’m a fast reader). So you could even say that I couldn’t put it down, which is true. But while I enjoyed it, I didn't savor it.
Promise Me is the story of two days or so in Bolitar’s life. The sports agent/do-gooder of Coben’s previous books has lain low for six years, but he’s drawn back into the crime-solving racket by the disappearance of a friend’s daughter when he was the last person to see her alive. His gang of slightly misfit friends – the delightfully sardonic Win being my favorite – are on hand to help Bolitar find Aimee Biel.
Coben has the distinction of being able to move his readers through an almost dizzying amount of action without it feeling forced or even like Bolitar is a superhero. We’re informed in detail of each place we arrive, and how we got there, and how much time has passed. It’s crucial to his success, I think, because there’s no point where we have to shake our heads and wonder if our protagonist has a helicopter stashed in his pants. Bolitar is, Coben insists, completely normal. Okay, he’s six foot four with powerful friends and a crippling hero complex. But what’s appealing about Promise Me is that ultimately, it takes place in suburban New Jersey, with characters that are acting out their human desires and foibles. It does all this with plot twists and a sense of suspense that is admirable given how humble the premise seems.
But one thing made me cringe - there were explanatory paragraphs that gave background in the best tradition of Terry Pratchett’s “As you know, your father, the KING” critique. I find this difficult to swallow in almost any set of books that carry through the same characters, only because I know it doesn’t necessarily need to be done. While Bolitar stops to reflect in depth and with key plot points and names so that Coben’s readers know which prior scenes he’s referencing, Le Carre was a perfect example of living his consecutive characters in real time – if Smiley says something to Esterhase about the job in Hungary, just assume that those two know what they’re talking about even if there isn’t a dramatic stage whisper to explain it. I appreciate this immensely, because any “your father, the king” asides take me completely out of the action and into the author’s head.
I'll admit, this is a niggling critique. Most of the characters were carefully constructed and full of personality (although I found Esperanza to be too hastily put together and very stereotyped). The plot genuinely had the sorts of twists and bends that made it a consistently enjoyable read and best of all, it felt accessible and realistic – something hard won in almost any genre. Perhaps it wasn’t the entrance into mysteries that a mystery-loving friend would suggest, and perhaps it won't send me on a quest for other mysteries, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.