Harlan Coben’s ‘The Stranger’

Dirty big secrets

Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm. 

– Graham Greene

It starts with kids playing lacrosse. (Photo by Lee Weissman via uslacrosse.org)

Master plot-maker Harlan Coben begins his newest novel, The Stranger, with a hook scene that should be required reading in creative writing classes. Suburban dad Adam Price is approached by a younger man in an initially unidentified setting. This stranger tells Price, “You didn’t have to stay with her.”

The writer then distracts the reader momentarily from this clearly ominous remark with one of his trademark precise observations about behavior. Adam is in a group of dads gathered in an American Legion hall in a wealthy New Jersey town:  “It was comfortable slumming, a way to pretend that they were salt-of-the-earth good ol’ boys, like something in a Dodge Ram commercial, when they were anything but.” 

Dodge Ram they definitely ain’t. In fact, they’re gathered for a grade school lacrosse draft, and Adam’s life now has a burning fuse attached to it because the stranger tells the shaken attorney that the last time his wife of nearly two decades was pregnant — she miscarried — her pregnancy was faked. If Adam wants to look into the matter, he’s told, the phrase “Novelty Funsy” is a key. He also suggests that he DNA-test his two living sons.

Then he goes.

A male Lifetime movie

What immediately follows might be called the book’s Lifetime movie passage — that is, if Lifetime movies focused on married men and sat on a foundation of subtler writing. Coben lays out Adam’s investigation, examining what he’s been told and what the disappointing findings could do to his sons’ lives. Then, just as that seems to go on a few “heartfelt” pages too long, Adam finally confronts his wife, Corinne.

And the scene suddenly shifts back to the stranger of the very first scene. He and his female companion, Ingrid, are watching three middle-aged women eating and drinking away an afternoon in a Red Lobster outside Cleveland. The stranger remains unnamed throughout this scene.

You are correct if you inferred that one of the women is about to encounter a dirty big secret, but halfway through the stranger’s exposure of it, you probably won’t be able to accurately identify the problem Heidi Dann is confronted with. Coben is that good at that sort of construction.

How is the completely untenable act explained?

Coben returns his focus from the suburbs of Cleveland to New Jersey. Why would a long-married woman fake a pregnancy? Confronted with her husband’s question, Corinne simply refuses to answer fully; the reader and Adam are left hanging in space by a thread. “There’s more to this,” she says.

Then she disappears.

Corinne’s “explanation” turns out to be accurate as Coben builds a taut meditation on privilege, control, and facades. All three concepts revolve around the notion that, even if you feel safe — as Adam Price and Heidi Dann do — human things fall apart. Asking why they fall apart often introduces a moral dimension, and Coben’s tale suggests that dimension often is a foggy landscape at night, especially for a new character popping up everywhere this new year, the Internet vigilante-innocent. The just concluded season of ABC’s American Crime gave us one; here Coben gives us a whole gang.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.