Something I’ve prided myself on trying to do these last two years, but really this year, is branching out of my comfort zone with my reading selections. I think that’s important. But also, sometimes, it’s comforting to return to a familiar author; it is its own kind of comfort food or comfort blanket. To that end, I returned to one of my favorites this week, Harlan Coben, who specializes in one of my favorite mystery genres: When the crap hits the fan for the average person — when the suburbs come crashing down, you could say. I read his 2010 book, Caught. I will say upfront, I don’t think it’s the best Coben book I’ve read, and part of that is due to it sort of steering away from that well-utilized formula.
The main character in the book, Wendy Tynes, is a TV reporter (and I’m adding the “TV” part unlike the back cover synopsis), who does live in the suburbs of New Jersey with her high school son, Pops, her father-in-law, and still deals with the fact of her husband being killed by a drunken driver a few years prior. But it’s harder to relate to Wendy as a normal person in the suburbs because she’s a TV reporter, and more specifically, because she reminds me of Nancy Grace, at least early on in the book. And I do not like Nancy Grace. To me, Nancy Grace is a poster child for some of what is wrong with the proliferation of interest in true crime, and the deleterious consequences of judge, jury, and executioner by the court of public opinion (and of TV “news” anchors).
Wendy hosts a TV news magazine show on the broadcast network, NTC News, called, Caught in the Act, where she ostensibly “catches” pedophiles in the act. It’s a familiar setup, akin to To Catch a Predator that used to air on NBC featuring Chris Hansen, except, I think in this scenario, Wendy is the one who poses as a teenage girl (or boy), sets up a staged house for the pedophile to come to, and “catches” them on camera, exposing them as a pedophile.
That’s what happens in the beginning of the book: She “catches” Dan Mercer, a seemingly good guy social worker in the area, and he’s facing charges of being a pedophile. But in addition to that, there’s also the mystery of a missing girl, Haley McWaid, a 17-year-old high school senior, who may be connected to him.
What’s wrong with catching people in the act of trying to have sex with children? Nothing on the face of it, but I have a built-in skepticism of TV news in particular (which is why I added “TV” to Wendy’s title) because of how sensationalized it is, how sensationalized Wendy seems with this news show, and most importantly, with how close-minded she is as someone who claims to be a “reporter.” It takes a lot to happen in the course of the book for her to finally begin reconsidering her preconceived notions, biting (that sarcasm piece) judgments and stubborn conclusions about Mercer.
My main problem with Wendy, though, and the book in general from a writing standpoint, is that her dialogue (and dialogue from Pops and others) is so dang sarcastic! Even in serious moments. I don’t like a lot of sarcasm from my main characters because it’s not really enjoyable to read. The dialogue just isn’t that great because of it. That criticism aside, I did come to like Wendy later on because I appreciated what Coben set out to do: Wendy’s arc from a Nancy Grace-like character to someone who does become invested in figuring out the truth, no matter where it takes her, even if it upsets her previous conclusions, and she becomes remorseful for what she did to Mercer by the end. Because he was completely innocent.
He was setup by one of his Princeton college buddies. The short-end of that story is that the buddy, Phil Turnball, came to Princeton with money and prestige, while his four other buddies, including Dan, came to Princeton as poor, downtrodden kids. When they tried to pull a prank on campus that resulted in a woman receiving a brutally scarred face (a mirror fall on her), Phil took the fall for them all because he had the money and the prestige. Later, the financial company he’s working for does a routine background check (and realizes he was essentially kicked out of Princeton, something he lied about), which then uncovers that he’s been running a Ponzi scheme. He’s fired. He denied embezzling the money, though. So, initially, Wendy is thinking there is someone else conspiring against the Princeton Five.
Joblessness, directionless, hopelessness, manhood, all of these together are central themes creating the overarching theme: Fathers and husbands without direction. Whether that’s Ted McWaid feeling like a failure as a protective father due to Haley’s disappearance (and later, death), or Turnball for being fired and his wife looking at him differently, or the rest of Turnball’s friends who have a Father’s Club at Starbucks where they all are reeling from the financial crisis of 2008; or Wendy’s own father, who lost his job and died shortly thereafter. In fact, this central theme becomes the sort of “villain origin story” for Phil. He decides he’s going to get revenge against his friends for them letting him take the fall for them all those years ago, and when he turned to them for help (after being fired), they didn’t help him. To get this revenge, he basically frames each of them for various wrongdoings, although in his rationalization, two of them were already bad, and he merely “exposed them.”
Dan, on the other hand, was the most guilty of all because he was the one who flung the ashtray that cracked the mirror that scarred the girl, so he was setup as a pedophile by Turnball, who used Wendy’s show to do it.
Meanwhile, there is a former federal marshal, Ed Grayson, whose son was, he thinks, sexually abused by Mercer. Grayson plans to kill him. He does beat up Mercer, and when he comes back home with blood on his clothing, his wife spills the truth that it was her brother who took lewd photos of their son. She wants him to keep it quiet to protect the family. Instead, he ends up knee-capping the brother (because he doesn’t want to kill him), and helping Dan to fake his death. In other words, he bet (rightly, at least for the characters in this book, but I could see it happening in real life, too) that the justice system players wouldn’t have much of an appetite for prosecuting someone who killed a pedophile, even though just before, that “pedophile” was actually cleared of all charges.
Because that’s the other big theme in the book: That court of public opinion, and how rumors circulate, especially via social media and the blogosphere (more so the latter back when Coben was writing this in 2010), and how even if they aren’t true, they can still taint someone’s reputation. It doesn’t matter that Mercer was cleared. He was depicted on a television program as a pedophile. It’s over for him, hence why he and Grayson collaborated to fake his death.
To that point, though, I thought Mercer’s ex-wife, Jenna Wheeler, was a welcome character to the story because she defended Mercer at great personal cost to her and her family (because she’s defending an accused pedophile, after all). If you can’t tell, I appreciate those who defend due process! Unfortunately, I think Coben erred with her character at the end, but more on that in a moment.
I did guess that Mercer faked his death part of the mystery, by the way. The way Coben wrote the scene where Wendy is supposed to have witnessed who she thinks is Grayson shooting Mercer to death, I figured something else was afoot, but I didn’t quite know how yet.
And I also still wasn’t sure how any of this connected to Haley, who had been missing in the story for three months at that point. Welp, turns out, they pin that on Mercer, too. They find her cell phone in his hotel room, which then leads them to her body in a state park. Case closed, right? He murdered her, let’s all go home.
But our new dogged reporter, Wendy, isn’t resting so easily. She’s trying to uncover what’s going on, why these Princeton buddies had their reputation suddenly ruined, and how it all connects. Eventually, she’s able to track down the scarred woman, hear that story, figure out that Turnball really did orchestrate a Ponzi scheme, and weirdly enough, there is nothing online about it. Now, she knows that it was him, and he reveals as much to her when he shows up at her house with a gun. He reveals everything, and then shoots himself.
That doesn’t conclude the mystery, though. There’s still the matter of how the phone got into Mercer’s hotel room. That’s when Coben I think undercuts one of the better characters in the story, Jenna, by revealing that she planted the phone. So, Haley snuck over to Jenna’s house for one of those “parent supervised parties.” You’ve heard of these? Where parents reason, my kid is going to drink, I can’t stop that, so why not have it happen at my house, so I can supervise? Instead, Haley, who was depicted by her family as the good child, but they sadly didn’t realize how hard she was taking rejection from a college she wanted to get into, drank whiskey until it killed her. Great supervising, huh?
At that point, Jenna and her husband panicked. Instead of calling the police, they reasoned she’s dead, so there is not anything they can do, and why ruin their lives over it? So, they take the body, dump it in the park, and then plant the phone in Mercer’s hotel room because they think he’s dead and the public thinks he’s a pedophile, so what’s the harm in adding murder to his legacy? Jenna also reasons that Mercer wouldn’t have minded because he didn’t believe in an afterlife. Dead is dead. Plus, they wanted to give Haley’s family “closure” on what happened to her (to some extent, since it wasn’t the right explanation).
I didn’t like that! I wanted Jenna to be a good character who stood by someone wrongly accused. Womp womp. Oh well.
While back on the track of criticizing Coben’s decision-making at the end, I also didn’t like that Wendy expressly asked for Mercer’s forgiveness, and he gave it to her (that’s how the book ends). Because briefly interspersed throughout the book is that Wendy is not ready to forgive Ariana Nasbro, the woman who drunkenly killed her husband. The woman served her time in prison, and is trying to better herself. She’s written Wendy, her son, and Pops. At one point early in the book, Wendy even confronts Ariana in person to tell her off, and the dialogue is so cringe. I’m sorry, Coben, but it was bad. I’m not saying Wendy has to forgive Nasbro — that’s always a personal decision and not incumbent upon me to force upon anyone — but that when put side-by-side with her asking for Mercer’s forgiveness, a man she helped portray to the world as a pedophile, and he gives it to her, that doesn’t sit right with me! Heck, even more amusing is that Pops, who is depicted as this NRA-loving, gun-toting guy, does forgive Nasbro.
Nonetheless, with my criticisms of dialogue and the Jenna character aside, I enjoyed the book! Like I said, it wasn’t the best Coben book I’ve read, but the mystery was strong enough to keep me guessing and turning the pages. I didn’t suspect Turnball, and I certainly didn’t see the Jenna swerve coming at all.
Like I said, comfort. Escape. That allows me to overlook some of those criticisms.
If you’re a Coben fan, I think you’ll dig it because you know his style, and if you’re not a Coben fan or just haven’t read his work, but you dig mysteries, you probably shouldn’t have read this far for me to spoil the mystery for you, but I think you’d like it, too!