No sooner had supermodel Laura Ayers and Celtics star David Baskin said “I do” than tragedy struck. While honeymooning on Australia’s Great Barrier Reed, David went out for a swim-and never returned. Now widowed and grieving, Laura’s search for the truth will draw her into a web of lies and deception that stretches back thirty years.
Though I haven’t read any of Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar books, I’ve read all of his standalone thrillers, and loved them. He writes some of the best twists ever. When I went looking for the first Bolitar title to catch up, I found that Coben’s very first thriller had been rereleased, with an interesting (at least to me) author note up front:
Okay, if this is the first book of mine you’re going to try, stop now. Return it. Try another. I’ll wait.
If you’re still here, please know that I haven’t read PLAY DEAD in at least twenty years. I didn’t want to rewrite it and pass it off as a new book. I hate when authors do that. So this is, for better or worse, the exact book I wrote and published when I was in my twenties, just a naive lad working in the travel industry and wondering if I should follow my father and brother and (shudder) go to law school.
I’m hard on it, but aren’t we all hard on our early stuff? Remember that essay you wrote when you were in school, the one that got you an A-plus on, the one your teacher called “inspired”–and one day you’re going through your drawer and find it and you read it and your heart sinks and you say, “Man, what was I thinking?”
That’s how it is with early novels sometimes.
I chose this book for my reading challenge because it was originally published in 1990 and was already on my iPod, and because I needed a male author since I’d just finished a book by a female author. I bought it and read it on my Kindle app.
Having recently digitized two of my early books, I can identify with Coben’s forward. PLAY DEAD is twenty years old. LOVE IN BLOOM and LOVE ME TENDER are around twelve. I have another early book, PLAYING LOVE’S ODDS, written in 1992, that I haven’t released digitally. If I do, I won’t rework it or update it as I did with the others.
As with PLAY DEAD, PLAYING LOVE’S ODDS relies on the year it was set in to work. Cell phones would null every bit of the suspense. It was easy to change pagers to phones and VHS to DVD in the two I revised. Not so with this last one. Coben’s book also works in the year it was written and set, but would not work today without major revisions. And those revisions would change everything about the plot, ergo, some of our earlier works have to stand on their own merit and remain in the past.
Older works aren’t hindered only by technology, or cultural influences of the time. They also showcase a beginning author’s weaknesses and creative immaturity. Conversely, they aren’t burdened by rules an author learns along the way, or by feedback that finds its way into an author’s toolbox as s/he discovers what does or doesn’t work for reader fans. When reading through my two earlier books, I could clearly see signs of the times, the lusher storytelling that is harped on today by those wanting stripped to the bone prose. There was more drama, more angst, true scenes and sequels that left no doubt in the reader’s mind what the characters were thinking or feeling because it was poured like thick paint onto the page. As Coben says in his note:
Finally, flawed and all, I love this book. There are an energy and risk taking in Play Dead that I wonder if I still have. Youth, as they say, is wasted on the young. I’m not this guy anymore, and that’s okay. None of us is stagnant with our passions and our work. That’s a good thing.
PLAY DEAD was unmistakably a Harlan Coben thriller. His love of basketball, his plot twists and turns. While he now writes more about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, his main protagonists in PLAY DEAD are not ordinary. Laura was a household name as a model, and David as a player for the Boston Celtics. That said, they are written as two people caught in circumstances out of their league, and are therefore identifiable as real people struggling to make sense of things gone wrong.
The pace is fast, moving between multiple viewpoints as the various players in the plot are introduced and their roles established and deepened. There is a lot, a LOT, of uber dramatic backstory: addiction, gambling, adultery, murder, rape . . . basically, a kitchen sink of Bad Things, as if the more dysfunctional the characters, the more sympathy their plight invoked. There is also a lot of mental anguish: Could this have happened? Could this really be true? How can I ever go on? Please, please let this be a bad dream.
I liked the characters. I liked that Laura was smart, surrounded herself with other smart people, sussed out any BS, dealt with it, and wasn’t easily duped. David? Well, what he did was rather dramatic, and if he and Laura had discussed the truth after he learned it, the WHOLE truth would most likely have come out in the end anyway as I believe Laura’s Aunt Judy would’ve seen to it. But talking doesn’t make for suspense, and even though I knew early what he’d done, it took a longer time to figure out why.
Once I had, guessing most of what had driven David to “play dead” before it was revealed, Coben tossed in another twist that turned the end around completely. I knew he would do it because that’s what he does so well (and why his thrillers are autobuys). And I waffled between three villains, so he also kept me guessing on that.
The paperback release is 560 pages, so this is not a short book. Some of the bloat could’ve been edited down to shorten it, but I didn’t care. I raced through it, flipping page after page until my thumb seized up, heh. Thrillers are my escapism, and this one, though not as polished or as tightly written as Coben’s newer works, kept me engaged from beginning to end. I enjoyed it a lot, early faults and all!