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CAUGHT by Harlan Coben: Book Review

It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been blogging for more than a year without reviewing a book by one of my favorite authors.  I’m remedying that right now.

Caught, by Harlan Coben, is another of his outstanding stand-alone mysteries.  Most mystery writers who write both stand-alone and books in a series, I have found, seem to write better books in the latter.  But the opposite is true of Harlan Coben.  Although I enjoy his Myron Bolitar series, I find his non-series books to be more exciting and to have more believable plots.

Caught is two stories that eventually connect.  First is the one about Dan Mercer, a Princeton graduate who is now a coach and social worker. He’s very involved in working with teenagers, but he’s recently been accused by television reporter Wendy Tynes of seducing the young teenage girls he’s supposed to be helping.  She sets up a sting and Mercer is arrested.  He protests his innocence, but a search of his house finds child pornography on his computer.  Mercer’s career is over.  He’s threatened, beaten up, and is forced to move from his house to one seedy motel after the other to avoid those townspeople who believe he’s guilty.

When the trial judge tosses all the evidence that Wendy Tynes had found in Mercer’s house and reprimands her for the bias in her story about Mercer, Wendy loses her television job. A few days later she receives a call from Mercer; if she wants to find out the real story, she needs to meet him in the trailer park where he’s currently living.  She goes, but almost immediately after she walks inside, a masked gunman bursts in and shoots Mercer.  The floor is covered with blood, and Wendy escapes and calls the police.  When they arrive, there’s no body in the trailer.

The second plot revolves around the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Haley McWaid, the “perfect” daughter of a couple in the same town. She was popular, had good grades, came from a loving family, but one morning when her mother went into Haley’s room to wake her for school, the bed was empty.  As the story opens, three months have passed and there’s been no sign of the teenager.

Coban’s characters are superbly written. At the end of the novel you realize that there are few black-and-white characters, they are mostly shades of gray.  There’s the police detective who’s been looking for Haley McWaid for the entire time she’s been missing; Mercer’s ex-wife, whose defense of him has cost her friends in the town; Pop, the father of Wendy’s deceased husband; Haley’s parents, who went from having an angelic daughter whom they never worried about to living in a perpetual nightmare.

And there’s Wendy Tynes, a reporter who won’t let go of the story.  At first absolutely convinced of Dan Mercer’s guilt, she becomes less sure of it, especially after she discovers that in the group of men he shared a suite with in his college days, the other four have also been dogged by a year of personal misfortunes.

One is a financial advisor fired from his job because he was accused of embezzlement, the second had to withdraw from a congressional race due to a sex scandal, the third is a medical doctor accused of using and selling drugs, and the fourth is a schizophrenic patient in a mental hospital.  The financial advisor, the politician, and the doctor all proclaim their innocence, as did Mercer.  Can this all be coincidence, Wendy wonders, or is someone behind the scenes manipulating these people for an unknown reason?

You can read more about Harlan Coben at his web site.

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