The Boy From the Woods by Harlan Coben - a propulsive thriller
The Boy From the Woods #1 by Harlan Coben
Genre: Thriller / Mystery
Published 2020; 370 pages
Harlan Coben is one of my favorite authors - I've read 28 of his books and about half are standalones like this one, about half are his long running mystery series starring Myron Bolitar, sports agent turned investigator. He provides reliable quality writing and entertainment.
First sentence: "How does she survive? How does she manage to get through this torment every single day?"
Main characters: Wilde; attorney Hester Crimstein; the wealthy Maynard family: Dash, Delia, and Crash; teens Matthew and Naomi
A feral 6-8 year old boy is found in the woods, brought into town and fostered and adopted by a nice family. He grows into a good looking, hunky guy that needs his privacy and prefers living off the grid and alone. Name? Wilde, of course. As most good-guy savior types he has past distinguished military service, he partnered with his adopted sister for a while in an investigative firm, and he clearly is comfortable and adept in living in the woods. We get almost zero info about his childhood or the circumstances of his formative years in the woods - I sure would have liked more of that - maybe it's in the next book?
Hester is the teen Matthew's grandmother and a well known TV personality, a feisty, spunky, smart-mouthed attorney. She's a terrific character and brings some zing to the story. When Matthew notices a girl (Naomi) missing from school, he calls his Nana to share his worries. Hester brings Wilde into the enquiry and the two of them start asking questions.
Naomi is the most abused, bullied girl in the high school (trigger warnings) - although not particularly graphic, it's definitely a defining element of her character. The snooty Maynard family has a teenage boy, Crash, who is the prototypical bully and entitled rich kid, getting into trouble with no accountability. The little snot.
"Some days, like today, Matthew really pays attention and wants to do something. Most days, he doesn't. The bullying still happens on those days, of course, but it is so frequent, so customary, it comes background noise. Matthew had learned an awful truth: You grow immune to cruelty. It becomes the norm. You accept it. You move on."
Off to the side, there's another layer of the story developing that revolves around a shady politician, a rabid conspiracy theorist, some hired protection muscle. What starts out as a "simple" missing person case soon turns into more as secrets are revealed and trust broken. When the obnoxious rich kid, Crash, also goes missing, the investigation kicks into high gear - because, rich kid.
I love The Boy From the Woods! Not sure I can explain what's different about this thriller, what elevates it about the other 5 I just read, but, it was one I could hardly put down (work sucks when it interferes with a good book!). If you just break down the plot elements, it's not dramatically different than many thrillers - rich, entitled people manipulating and being manipulated, a bullied teenage girl & wealthy snotty teenage boy that disappear around the same time (is it related?), a feisty 70+ year old female attorney that takes no shit, and a hunky, quiet, loner of a guy. Sounds like others you've read, right?
Yes, there are twists and various suspects on the teen disappearances. Yes, there's splash of romance here and there. Yes, there's emotional baggage. But. What makes this book different? I'm left with the writing style. Coben's writing is so accessible without being simplistic. It's authentic without trying. Dialog is believable. There are always multiple things going on to move the story forward on one level or another. It's genius. If you're a fan of thrillers that have no graphic sex or violence, but have characters that you like and that you find slimey, and pages that practically turn themselves, this is for you.
I didn't see the ending coming - well, sorta. Not sure I loved it, but it does leave interesting possibilities for the next book. I looked it up and the next book in the series was published in March: The Match. You can bet it's going on my TBR mountain! (I'm stealing the TBR mountain phrase from a reader comment on last week's post - I thought it SO clever!)
BTW - I have a bone to pick with authors in general: why can't the rich or popular kid be nice, welcoming, accepting? Rich kids, entitled kids are almost always portrayed negatively - I get that we need a villain, but let's have the snooty rich kid have a heart of gold once in a while. (stepping off my soapbox now)