Review: ‘The Boy from the Woods,’ by Harlan Coben

I read a variety of black ops/thriller books that I generally refer to as “grocery store books” because that’s where I see them while buying milk, bread, eggs, and inexpensive wine. I know my definition is unfair because, frankly, if an author’s books are on grocery store shelves, they’re usually compelling, well-written, bestselling books. Coben’s books fit all three of those categories.

Publisher’s Description: Thirty years ago, Wilde was found as a boy living feral in the woods, with no memory of his past. Now an adult, he still doesn’t know where he comes from, and another child has gone missing.

No one seems to take Naomi Pine’s disappearance seriously, not even her father—with one exception. Hester Crimstein, a television criminal attorney, knows through her grandson that Naomi was relentlessly bullied at school. Hester asks Wilde—with whom she shares a tragic connection—to use his unique skills to help find Naomi.

Wilde can’t ignore an outcast in trouble, but in order to find Naomi he must venture back into the community where he has never fit in, a place where the powerful are protected even when they harbor secrets that could destroy the lives of millions . . . secrets that Wilde must uncover before it’s too late.

Wilde is an interesting character who will subsequently appear in a second book in the series called The Match. He lives off the grid and becomes uncomfortable if he has to come into the city too often. But he has some handy black ops skills and some very strategic common sense when it comes to solving things that aren’t what they seem.

This works well in The Boy from the Woods since most of the crimes and other strange events aren’t what they seem. The reader can only think that everyone except Wilde is probably lying. Fortunately, Wilde has some high-powered friends who believe in his abilities. That’s good, for this plot is so tangled up that even Sherlock Holmes might be tempted to say, “Watson, this time, I don’t have a clue.”

If you like thrillers, this book will probably appeal to you. You certainly won’t be bored. You might even condone the dash of schmaltz in the ending.



Briefly Noted: ‘The Outsider’ by Stephen King

Like his Mr. Mercedes trilogy, King’s The Outsider begins as a thriller/police procedural, then falls down the rabbit hole of the supernatural. I wasn’t happy with this in Mr. Mercedes, because after two books of standard police work, I thought changing the genre into a supernatural solution in book three was a mistake. However, in this standalone book, it works.

From the Publisher

An eleven-year-old boy’s violated corpse is discovered in a town park. Eyewitnesses and fingerprints point unmistakably to one of Flint City’s most popular citizens—Terry Maitland, Little League coach, English teacher, husband, and father of two girls. Detective Ralph Anderson, whose son Maitland once coached, orders a quick and very public arrest. Maitland has an alibi, but Anderson and the district attorney soon have DNA evidence to go with the fingerprints and witnesses. Their case seems ironclad.

As the investigation expands and horrifying details begin to emerge, King’s story kicks into high gear, generating strong tension and almost unbearable suspense. Terry Maitland seems like a nice guy, but is he wearing another face? When the answer comes, it will shock you as only Stephen King can.

The police seem to have Maitland dead to rights, But then more and more lapses in the investigation begin to occur. Mainly, how could Maitland be in two places at the same time? The star of the show is a private detective who specializes in skip tracer, lost dog, and missing persons work at a small agency called Finders Keepers named Holly Gibney. (She appeared in earlier King novels.)

She has seen doppelgänger cases before and is open to multiple solutions that don’t fit the standard police approach. King does a good job of building tension, showing the frustration of the police investigators, and allowing Gibney to slowly orient the investigation toward a supernatural solution.

I enjoyed the book.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism, contemporary fantasy, and paranormal novels and short stories.


Backstory adds depth while slowing down the primary action

Greg Iles Cemetery Road is a compelling thriller; I’ll stipulate that’s an early opinion inasmuch as I haven’t reached the half-way point yet.

The protagonist, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Marshall McEwan, returns to the small town where he grew up because his father is in ill health and his newspaper business is failing. (I would have used a different name since this one is too close to Marshall McLuhan, the famous media expert and philosopher). Marshall’s old friend is murdered and thus begins the current-day primary plot of the novel.

Having lived in a small town, I understand what Iles is doing when he shows how interconnected people are, including those who leave for the big city and then return. There are many kinds of loyalties and associations (including a former love interest) that make solving the murder about as tricky and running through a minefield.

The book has great depth in the development of its characters and is a page-turner when Marshall and others are up against entrenched and hostile movers and shakers who consider that murder to be a benefit to their business interests. The problems begin when the backstory segments get too lengthy; for example, Marshall was a reporter in Iraq, embedded with a group run by another long-time friend. But, my view is that when a description of what happened in Iraq runs to 16 pages, the backstory has run amok.

Suddenly, we’re in a different novel while the main story is put on hold. I think the Iraq relationship of two primary characters could have been explained in several paragraphs rather than taking us on such a long diversion. And, this is not the only time such a diversion happens. My cynical side says that without these diversions, the story would be pretty slim if it stuck to solving the murder.

I don’t know how things end up, of course. So, isn’t a review, but an an example of the problems of using too much backstory.


Review: ‘Redemption Road’ by John Hart

Redemption RoadRedemption Road by John Hart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s enough darkness in this book to cause an eclipse of the sun soon after you begin reading. Elizabeth, the protagonist is a good cop with a good heart that is filled with life-affirming love and infinite grit. Her past was cruel to her and it’s neither gone nor forgotten.

Her story in this thriller will carry you through the darkness stemming from multiple characters whose self-righteous evil is as unflinching as Elizabeth’s heart. Thirteen years prior to the beginning of the novel, a policeman was convicted of killing a young woman and leaving her body on the altar of the church where Elizabeth’s father preaches. Elizabeth, who was a rookie cop at the time thought he was wrongly convicted. As a cop, he has a hard time surviving prison. When he gets out, the killings start again with the same MO. This appears to prove that everyone else on the police force is right about him and that Elizabeth is naive.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth is having her own troubles with the authorities over a case she’s involved in. The plot is complex and well constructed, the writing is superb, and the characters have more dimensions, secrets, and agonies than you can shake a stick at. At all times, the notion of a redemption road out of this chaos seems to many as an unlikely nirvana or simply a dead end.

The story is adeptly told and highly recommended.


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How to destroy the pacing of your story

thrillerNovelists trick us in multiple ways in order to ramp up the suspense of a story. Important facts are concealed, backstories aren’t revealed, and point of view is shifted from one character to another keeping readers outside the head of the person whose thoughts would reveal important clues.

One trick annoys me, probably annoys others, and disrupts the pacing of the story. Let’s call this “hurry up and wait.” Here’s an example:

The Bomb

Joe opened the suitcase. There is was: enough C4 to level the building and a timer with ten seconds left in the countdown. The timer was old, sounded like a plastic clock.

The tick tock, tick tock reminded him of summer evenings at the lake when Dad not only woke him at the crack of dawn, but kept him awake most of the night with a loudly ticking alarm clock. Every time it woke him, he lay there waiting for it to go off in an explosion of bells and sunshine. Before the left the old cabin, he threw that darned clock in the lake, hoping a gator might eat it. He had to smile in spite of the bomb in the suitcase. If Dad were alive and sitting here next to him, he would love the sound of that timer.

When a story is racing toward a critical moment, stopping the action for an absurd reason cheats the reader, for it builds tension where there should already be enough tension to cover the action.  In this example:

  1. No sane person faced with a bomb with just seconds to defuse is going to walk down memory lane in his thoughts. He will run, throw the bomb out a window, or defuse it.
  2. Some novelists don’t pay attention to the time it takes a reader to read a passage. I always note it. In this case, the bomb will explode before Joe finishes his thoughts about the lake and the clock simply because the thought takes more time than he has.

A similar sin, somewhat less grievous, is the insertion of backstory information into a scene where, in reality, there’s no time for it. Now, if you’re a reader or a writer who isn’t concerned with the amount of time thoughts and memories take to occur, this won’t bother you as much as it bothers me. Consider this:

The Highway

Sue lit another cigarette and blew the smoke out the open window of the car. Goodness knows, she was driving fast enough for the wind to draw everything out the window including her soft voice, her hair and the gnats that took over the car while they were parked at a rest stop.

“What are we going to tell our parents when we get there,” she asked.

“If you’ll slow down,” said Jim, “we’ll have more time to come up with an elaborate lie.”

She laughed, looked at him sideways, and punched his shoulder gently.

“I’m eight months pregnant,” she said. “What kind of elaborate lie do you propose.”

Other than how she happened to get pregnant, Sue was forever practical. He preferred jokes and delays and white lies. If he could think of a real whopper, he would resort to that. This road was a highway of lies because it connected their hometown with the beach cottages. Things happened at those cottages. Always had. The road home, lined with saw palmetto and scrub oak and a few longleaf pines, was a fertile ground for fibs, large and small. They literally fell out of the trees. If they’d been fish, they would have jumped into his boat. Sue felt uncomfortable with lies. That’s why she drove down this road faster than the law allowed.

“You’ve been overeating,” he suggested.

Okay, maybe there’s some relevance in the fact Jim uses the road as a time and place for covering up whatever he did at the beach.

  1. Nonetheless, this diversion destroys what was developing as a back-and-forth dialogue of short sentences. The pace one can create with that kind of dialogue gets derailed with the intrusion of a giant paragraph of information.
  2. Plus, I feel like asking the author exactly what Sue is doing while Jim has this multi-sentence thought. Yes, sooner or later such conversations have to end. But not before they’re naturally over.

Pacing can help a writer’s work or destroy it. Sometimes, it’s a matter of personal taste. If you read your stuff aloud, you’ll hear the pacing as surely as you hear the rhythm of a song on the radio. The pace not only needs to feel right, it needs to make logical sense. I think it’s illogical for a man defusing a bomb to think about something else, and I think most people having a conversation would be saying “Jim, Jim, Earth to Jim” before Jim finished his thoughts about the road and the lies he found on it.

Pitch-perfect pacing keeps the thrills in your thriller.

My two cents for a Monday afternoon.



Review: ‘The Templar Salvation’

The Templar SalvationThe Templar Salvation by Raymond Khoury
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Raymond Khoury’s The Templar Salvation (2010) sequel to The Last Templar (2006) is better than the original. Like the original, The Templar Salvation presents a story of lost/hidden church secrets with dual time lines, a lot of historical detail, and plenty of action.

In the present day, Khoury brings back FBI agent Sean Reilly and archeologist Tess Chaykin in a race with terrorist Mansoor Zahed to find a cache of early Christian documents. In 1203, while the Fourth Crusade siege of Constantinople is in progress, a small band of Templars sets out to rescue and then hide the same set of documents. In both time lines, the Catholic church doesn’t want the documents to come to light.

The Last Templar featured an amazing opening scene. The Templar Salvation’s opening, while slightly less spectacular is action-oriented and inventive. Tess is in danger. Sean rushes to the rescue and, in spite of the law enforcement resources available in Turkey and at the Vatican, becomes the point man in a search for Tess, Mansoor, the documents, and a variety of people who end up dead.

The Templar Salvation is more tightly woven than The Last Templar. It also contains fewer “talky scenes” where Tess and/or Sean explain elements of the 1203 story to present day police officers as though 800-year-old information trumps current evidence or the need to get out of the squad room with some sense of urgency. The Templar Salvation might be called “The Book That Will Not End.” Tess, Sean and Mansoor find themselves within nanoseconds of being killed (or worse) numerous times throughout the story only to escape/survive and keep on searching, fighting or running.

Nonetheless, the improbable story somehow makes for more exciting reading than The Last Templar. The Templar Salvation is a violent, tangled, twisted, groaner kind of escapist read that features the kind of over-the-top, don’t-worry-about-civilian-deaths-and-collateral-damage law enforcement that viewers of the TV series “24” tuned in every week to see.

Like agent Jack Bauer in “24,” Sean Reilly is as relentless as a Terminator in his quest for neutralizing the bad guys and possibly obtaining justice. And, like Jack, Sean keeps going, going and going even though his wounds would have killed ten normal men.

The book is a guilty pleasure.

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Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire,” “Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey,” and “The Sun Singer.”