Ed here: I'm unfamiliar with Finchway's novels but if they're half as good as his eloquent and knowing reviews they must be damned good.
By CHARLES FINCHMAY 22, 2015
There are a lot of ways for a novelist to create suspense, but also really only two: one a trick, one an art.
The trick is to keep a secret. Or many secrets, even. In Lee Child’s books, Jack Reacher always has a big mystery to crack, but there are a series of smaller mysteries in the meantime, too, a new one appearing as soon as the last is resolved. J. K. Rowling is another master of this technique — Who gave Harry that Firebolt? How is Rita Skeeter getting her info?
The art, meanwhile, the thing that makes “Pride and Prejudice” so superbly suspenseful, more suspenseful than the slickest spy novel, is to write stories in which characters must make decisions. “Breaking Bad” kept a few secrets from its audience, but for the most part it was fantastically adept at forcing Walter and Jesse into choice, into action. The same is true of “Freedom,” or “My Brilliant Friend,” or “Anna Karenina,” all novels that are hard to stop reading even when it seems as if it should be easy.
Both the pleasure and the limitation of many thrillers, like THE STRANGER (Dutton, $27.95), by Harlan Coben, is that they rely so heavily on that first kind of tension. Their fealty is always only to the next page, then the next, then the next, and so they’re wanton with our interest, constantly planning new seductions for it along the way. It makes them deeply immersive in the moment, but strangely evanescent: in other words, beach reads.
As far as beach reads go, though, Coben’s are among the best. In “The Stranger” he again takes a happy suburban family and destroys it, which, judging by his sales, is just the frisson that a lot of the members of those families are looking for. This time around his victim is Adam Price, a New Jersey lawyer; one evening, a man approaches Adam with the devastating news that his wife, Corinne, faked her last pregnancy, and worse still that their two sons may not be his.
Coben describes Adam’s search for the truth behind these allegations — and the identity of the person who made them — with masterly skill, springing surprises, raising stakes, seamlessly integrating other victims of the “stranger” into Adam’s tale. He’s also a smooth, funny writer. James Patterson chivies his reader along toward his next plot point, but Coben likes to pause and make the kind of ephemeral observation that Ian McEwan so accurately called “one of the writer’s great pleasures” — at a lacrosse game, for instance, Adam thinks of how “we pretend otherwise, but we watch only our own child,” or at another moment, contemplating tragedy, how “the world moves on, which is an outrage.”
Still, the real point is the chase. After Adam confronts her, Corinne leaves, and he tries with increasing desperation to pull her back, hoping to salvage their life together. The book’s denouement is enough to make you later to bed than you wanted. And yet throughout, both he and we are more happened-to than happening, waiting on those secrets. When they arrive, of course, they seem diminished in importance, and a day or two after I finished “The Stranger,” I found I had already forgotten many of its particulars. Coben, Child — they get accused of writing the same books over and over. But if each new book makes the reader amnesiac, does it matter?
Another new domestic novel, less mechanically proficient than “The Stranger” but more likely to linger in the reader’s mind, is THE DAYLIGHT MARRIAGE (Algonquin, $24.95), by Heidi Pitlor. It belongs to the booming microgenre of the missing wife, and in this case that’s Hannah Hall, whose husband, a climatologist named Lovell, becomes alarmed after she fails to pick up their kids at school one day.
There’s an enormous technical difficulty with this kind of book: The author must hold the husband in a state of weird suspension throughout, since he’s either (a) a murderer or (b) the victim of terrible circumstances. (Not surprisingly, it was Gillian Flynn who most adroitly solved this difficulty, just one of the innumerable brilliancies of “Gone Girl.”) At the same time, it’s a perfect microscope with which to examine the inexhaustible fascinations of marriage, and as Pitlor flashes between the day of Hannah’s disappearance and Lovell’s uneasy consideration of their past resentments, she finds a nice voice — thoughtful, lyrical, unforced.
Because of this, and because it’s a quick, light-footed read, “The Daylight Marriage” ends up just about surmounting its flaws of construction, even its unsatisfying solution. “Oh, my whole life feels like an epilogue right now,” Hannah says in the last fight she and Lovell have before she vanishes, and it’s ambiguous clues like this that keep the reader curious — and perhaps also clarify the popularity of this style of book. Culturally, we’re at a strange moment halfway between the old notions of what a woman’s life can be, and the new ones. Marriage, children, suburbia: Is escape from these things a dream, or a nightmare?
Coben and Pitlor both work within the textbook definition of the thriller, which is to take an ordinary life and turn it upside down.
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