Dutton, 2007, 404 pages
Twenty years ago, four teenagers at summer camp walked into the woods at night. Two were found murdered, and the others were never seen again. Four families had their lives changed forever. Now, two decades later, they are about to change again.
For Paul Copeland, the county prosecutor of Essex, New Jersey, mourning the loss of his sister has only recently begun to subside. Cope, as he is known, is now dealing with raising his six-year-old daughter as a single father after his wife has died of cancer. Balancing family life and a rapidly ascending career as a prosecutor distracts him from his past traumas, but only for so long. When a homicide victim is found with evidence linking him to Cope, the well-buried secrets of the prosecutor's family are threatened.
Is this homicide victim one of the campers who disappeared with his sister? Could his sister be alive? Cope has to confront so much he left behind that summer 20 years ago: his first love, Lucy; his mother, who abandoned the family; and the secrets that his Russian parents might have been hiding even from their own children. Cope must decide what is better left hidden in the dark and what truths can be brought to the light.
Those who have read my book reviews for a while know that my preferences lean heavily towards science fiction and fantasy. I've made a conscious effort in the last few years to read more broadly, and one of the things I have discovered is that I really like contemporary thrillers. They are (so far) not usually very deep or mind-bending, nor have I discovered a thriller author who's a really great writer, but when I am in the mood for a twisty page-turning tale that entertains me and has lots of interesting characters, I'm actually less likely to be disappointed with suspense dramas and thrillers than I am with space operas and epic fantasy. Which is kind of an interesting thing to discover.
Harlan Coben is another best-seller I'd never read before. The Woods was a fun ride with a lot of dubious plot twists, but I still quite enjoyed it. From reading other reviews, it seems his shtick is nearly always "Someone the main character thought was dead turns out to be still alive," so consider that a mild spoiler for this book.
Paul Copeland survived a summer camp massacre as a teenager. He and his girlfriend sneaked off into the woods for a little summer lovin'. So did a bunch of other kids, including his sister. Only Paul and his girlfriend made it back out — and one of their fellow adolescents, who turned out to be a nascent serial killer.
Years later, Paul is a county prosecutor with political ambitions, and his ex-girlfriend, Lucy, is an alcoholic college professor. They haven't seen each other since the horrible events of twenty years ago, but someone is digging up the past, sending them mysterious messages, and hinting that they don't know what really happened.
The Woods is half mystery centered around Paul's past and what happened to his sister (whose body was never found) and half courtroom drama. Paul is prosecuting a Law & Order-style "ripped from the headlines" rape case. Chamique Johnson, a black stripper, claims she was raped at a frat party by a couple of rich white frat boys. This produces all the expected cliches on both sides, but the author (through his protagonist) gets up on a soapbox enough that there's little doubt for the reader as to what really happened. The boys' families are rich enough to send private detective agencies out to dig up dirt on everyone involved in the prosecution, including Paul and his family, in an effort to pressure him to drop the case.
If this book was not so fast-paced it probably wouldn't work, because as the twists pile up, the reader is likely to start going "Wait, what?" at some point. There are dead people who aren't dead, serial killers who might not have done it, a Perry Mason-style courtroom takedown, ex-KGB agents, and parents who seem to be nothing but repositories of dark secrets.
Improbable and sensationalistic, but good entertainment.
Verdict: The Woods is a mystery accompanied by a legal drama that's almost as compelling as the main plot, if just as full of hoary tropes. I would not call this high literature, but if you just want a pacy thriller with lots of plot twists and interesting if ephemeral characters, it seems Harlan Coben is your guy. 7/10.
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