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14 may 2010
A good rough guide to the quality of popular novels is to see which ones fetch up at thrift stores. At my local thrift store, for instance, there is a constant, pretty much inexhaustible supply of the novels of Jan Karon. Any time, any title, if you want to read something by Jan Karon, just head out to Collins Park Thrift in Arlington, Texas, and they can fix you up. I've never read anything by Jan Karon, and the covers of these books don't make the prospect very appealing. (One blurb recommends them for "fans of gentle fiction," which sounds like something you read after consuming prescription drugs that are incompatible with operating heavy machinery.) But even if Jan Karon wrote novels about baseball-playing private-eye paleontologists in the Old West, I would be wary. The very fact that thousands of her books line the shelves of thrift stores would be a signal that folks buy 'em, but have no interest in reading them.
When a popular writer is very rare at thrift stores, yard sales, and other marginal markets, you know that people get a charge out of their stuff, and hang onto it – pushing it on their friends rather than dumping it in donation boxes. Michael Connelly is a first-rate crime-fiction writer whose books rarely appear on the shelves of last resort. Another is Harlan Coben. When I was lucky enough last winter to see a couple of Connellys and a single Coben going for 66¢ apiece, I naturally snapped them up.
The Coben I acquired was The Woods, a relatively recent one-off thriller (not an entry in a series). In The Woods, prosecutor Paul Copeland is busy trying a high-profile rape case with Duke-lacrosse overtones. (Coben claims that he "had the idea well before that particular event took place" , which is certainly possible; on the other hand, he didn't bother to quash the idea once the real-life case became notorious.)
The accused frat boys in The Woods, unlike their real-life Duke parallels, are actually guilty. But their powerful parents start to pry into Copeland's background, looking for any buried secrets that might undermine the prosecution. And let's just say that Copeland might as well be the picture in the dictionary when you look up "buried secrets."
When he was a teenage camp counselor, a couple of decades earlier, Copeland had strayed from his dorm-minding duties, and four of his charges had been despatched by a fiendish serial killer. That's gotta be traumatic, but Copeland recovered to finish law school, marry the perfect woman, and . . . watch her die of cancer. Which is not in itself scandalous, unless your beefy Republican brother-in-law decides to embezzle most of the charity fund you've established in your departed wife's memory. Oy, gevalt.
The Woods is twisty and brisk enough to keep you reading headlong over some rather preposterous plot developments, which is a measure of Coben's skill. I kid, but I really do enjoy Coben's baroque narratives, which seem to me distillations of contemporary suburban angst: Grand Guignol in North Jersey, in this case, but cathartic all the same.
I enjoy observing books as physical artifacts, and the 2008 Signet paperback of The Woods is an interesting artifact. At 7 3/4" by 4 1/2", it is taller and narrower than the usual mass-market paperback. You see this format more and more often, though it's still a distinct minority among paperbacks. The narrower columns of print are cognitively easier to read, I think, and they lend themselves especially well to a book like The Woods, which is told largely in short-paragraph dialogue exchanges. It probably saves paper, too, given that there's so much potential white space in the narrative. Well done, Signet.
Coben, Harlan. The Woods. 2007. New York: Signet, 2008.