John C Adams Reviews 'The Woods' by Harlen Coben

Updated: Aug 12

The Woods by Harlan Coben (Dutton, 2020)

The copy I read for this review was a Dutton (Penguin Random House) paperback version, but the story was originally published in 2007. It's since been picked up by Netflix, and Harlan Coben is already a Number One New York Times Bestselling Author, so it hasn't surprised me to subsequently see this everywhere, including on the shelves of our local supermarket. This was the first novel by Coben that I'd read, so I was intrigued to meet a new author. Given that it featured a serial killer who attacked four young people in a summer camp and buried their bodies in the woods, I felt there was enough horror in the mix for me to give it a go.

Paul Copeland is a county prosecutor with a backstory in violent crime: his sister Camille was one of the murdered teenagers all those years ago, and as one of the youth counsellors tasked with monitoring the safety of the young guests, he came in for his fair share of criticism for being too busy making out with his girlfriend Lucy to notice the kids sneaking off to the woods the night they were killed. You'd think that was all water under the bridge, given that Paul is now a widower raising his young daughter alone, but his sister's body was never found and his father has recently died without ever knowing the truth about what happened to her.

The action kicks off when Paul identifies a body, killed just the other day, as that of Gil Perez, the lad who was with his sister that night in the woods. This sparks the hope, long cherished and deeply painful, that Camille might also still be alive. Paul reaches out to his ex-girlfriend and together they investigate the recent killing of Gil Perez and start to make progress in discovering what happened to Camille.

For my taste, it all felt a little too tidy and constructed. This was the main drawback of Coben's novel for me, and all the way through I couldn't quite shake the nagging image of the author piecing together Paul's identity and backstory to make the whole thing a perfect, flawless entity. Paul's status as a widower neatly opens up his ability to enjoy encountering his ex-girlfriend again, guilt free. It also makes him more sympathetic. His determination to fight tenaciously for an exotic dancer who accuses two privileged college boys of raping her at a frat party enables the portrayal of him as a determined campaigner for true justice in the face of financial resources and a willingness to fight dirty. None of it felt natural, somehow.

I never quite suspended disbelief in terms of character even though I was gripped to the end by Coben's plot. I didn't really feel that the characters had developed naturally during the writing and none of them, perhaps Paul especially, ever felt fully rounded. I think that an audience is more used to that in TV or film, where you know a team of scriptwriters have poured over the plot and lots of fairly stereotyped backstories and family relationships come into play to help you follow the welter of material flickering across your screen. Reading a novel, even a detective thriller, feels different. You can move at your own pace and flick back through something that wasn't clear without pressing 'pause live TV' and infuriating your family and friends.

The plot was by far the strongest element of this novel, and for this reason I anticipate enjoying it much more on Netflix than I did in print. They won't have to change anything much at all; Coben had it already more than oven ready for filming. That's a huge achievement for any writer, and makes future adaptations more likely, too. I was gripped by the twists and turns right up to the end, and the climax felt inevitable yet unpredictable in equal measure: an essential staple of detective thrillers whether in print or on the screen. I was comfortably able to follow the complexities of the plot on a straightforward first reading, a real achievement given how multi-faceted the story is. I enjoyed it so much I read it cover to cover in only a few days, a good sign for any novel, without sacrificing the ability to comprehend all the many nuances of plot and action.

A superb detective thriller likely to make the leap to the screen with ease. I enjoyed every moment.

Thank you so much for reading this 'Friday Frightener' review from John C Adams Reviews. My next review is for Way Back Whensday next week. See you then. In the meantime, please do comment on this book or another horror book you've enjoyed in the comments section below. I'd love for you to share your thoughts and suggest books to read and review.

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