Thursday, April 16, 2015

Forward Movement

Inertia is a physical object's tendency to move forward in a straight line once it's started moving, unless some outside force acts on it. It's why your car rocks slightly forward when you brake at a stop sign, or why you will take an extra step or two before coming to a complete halt from a fast run.

It's also as plausible an explanation as any other for how Harlan Coben's latest novel, The Stranger, got written.

Adam Price is an attorney with a wonderful wife and two teenage sons. At a bar one evening, a stranger approaches him and tells him a secret about his wife Corinne that he at first refuses to believe. But it gnaws at him until he checks into it and learns the stranger, who more or less vanished after the revelation, was right. Adam confronts Corinne, who admits to part of the accusation but insists on waiting until tomorrow before revealing all. Then she disappears, and Adam begins looking for her or for the stranger himself, hoping there will be a connection that will lead him to her.

Coben has made a field out of the idea of the solid citizen's life turned upside-down by buried secrets and the impact these secrets have on a family. But with The Stranger, his field has become a rut that he shows no signs of trying to leave; it's easily one of the laziest efforts yet from an author who has flirted with that problem before. His protagonists are interchangeable with the same people who headlined earlier books and other characters are bargain-basement ciphers selected to do the bare minimum necessary to keep the sputtering story shambling forward. A ruthless villain kills innocent people to cover a secret but his desire to protect money that could help his son survive cancer helps him justify his crimes. And helps Coben fill a couple of pages with a hospital visit. The stranger himself has motives that seem noble in his own odd view of the world but Coben can't even be bothered to type enough quote marks to put that explanation into a conversation; it's just an internal monologue that commits the old sin of telling instead of showing.

There's never a satisfactory explanation for why Corinne wanted to wait a day to explain everything, just one of the plot holes Coben leaves in this mess of novel. Others would require spoiling the plot, and I've enjoyed some of Coben's books too much to do that. Plus, if I just leave it alone, the same inertia that led to such a bland piece of work will probably keep it headed away from me, and that's a darn good thing.
At the end of The Counterfeit Agent, John Wells and his friend Ellis Schafer found themselves having solved one problem only to face another: The United States government believed that a kilo of enriched uranium supposedly uncovered by the CIA was from Iran, which was planning to use it to build nuclear weapons. But Wells and his friend Ellis Schafer, along with their former boss Vinny Duto, know the uranium was not from Iran and a shadowy conspiracy was trying to maneuver the U.S. into war with Iran. They have 12 days to find out where the uranium came from, convince the President he's wrong and avert a U.S. invasion of Iran.

Twelve Days picks the story up where Agent left off. Wells will use his skills in the field, Ellis his remaining access at CIA headquarters and Duto his political pull as a United States senator to try to unravel the conspiracy and prevent war. The deadline makes an excellent tension builder, as Wells finds himself dealing with Russian arms merchants and crime bosses, Saudi royalty and terrorists and a range of unsavory characters in between as he tracks the uranium and its supplier. Berenson uses this built-in feature well, but the book as a whole feels stretched, as though incidents and conversations happen that seem mostly to fill out pages. Especially given that it's the second part of a two-book story, Twelve Days feels overlong and meanders a good deal more than it ought.

While Berenson makes much more use of Wells' Islamic faith than he has in the past and includes a couple of nice grace note scenes that play off it, he also makes the uncomfortable move of having his main villain -- who's already known when the story starts, so no spoilers here -- a super-wealthy Jewish man manipulating U.S. intelligence agencies on behalf of Israel and who used his wealth to buy influence in U.S. elections. He doesn't do this in the ham-handed style common to the back alleys of anti-Semitic "novels" that can be found in all too many places, but the parallels are enough to warrant a grimace of ick.

Twelve Days is serviceable enough as a thriller and represents no real drop in quality in the Wells series. But its a-little-too-close-to-seamy storyline and padded narrative make it one of the least interesting volumes in that series, and suggest a good outing for number 10 would be an excellent idea for both the retired agent Wells and the man chronicling his exploits.

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