It only takes a few pages for “Run Away” to inform the reader that the word “beige” is a little outdated: “The politically correct term is ‘earth tones.’” Such a detail appears incidental to the plot, but it’s exactly the kind of quip that regularly resurfaces throughout the latest novel from New York Times bestseller Harlan Coben. Unfortunately, sometimes these quips are grouped in lengthy paragraphs that seem like they’re trying too hard to be something they’re not. Coben repeatedly plays with the idea of inserting cultural critiques into a thriller — trying to make an otherwise decently plotted thriller into a work of affected prose — only to fail at both endeavors. The many digressions and awkward phrasing demand better editorial attention, both to bring attention back to plot and to minimize poorly phrased rhetorical devices.
Simon Greene — Wall Street bigshot, father of three, devoted husband to Ingrid, generic thriller protagonist — has been searching for his drug-addled eldest daughter Paige for a while now. What begins as an altercation between him and Paige’s equally drug-addicted boyfriend Aaron turns into a wild-goose chase starring him, his wife, and Elena Ramirez, a private investigator whose own search intersects with theirs when Aaron is found dead. Add in genetic testing, a weird cult reminiscent of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and multiple chapters from the point of view of Ash and Dee Dee, two characters whose roles are only made clear toward the end of the novel, and you’ve got a thriller with enough moving parts to theoretically keep things interesting.
The issue is, however, that Coben could not seem to decide what exactly he wanted this novel to be. Should it be a tightly wound edge-of-your-seat thriller that wraps up all its loose ends? Or a work with prose so moving it will make you cry at its profundity? In playing with both ways of writing, Coben ends up writing neither novel, making it difficult to truly sink into the action or appreciate the moments of supposed “insight” that comes, strangely enough, not from Simon himself, but from the omniscient narrator who occasionally uses Simon as a mouthpiece for his own tangential opinions he feels must be inserted into the action.
One excerpt dives deep into the necessity of money: “Pooh-pooh it all you want. Money may not buy happiness, but...well, nonsense. Money, pretty much more than anything else you might be able to control, can conjure up and elevate that elusive ideal we call happiness.” This kind of phrase resurfaces many, many times throughout the novel, chopping up the action in disdain of continuity. Readers looking for a thriller paced at a fast clip should look elsewhere. To make such shifts even more jarring and out-of-place is Coben’s inability to decide which voice should tell the story. Third person? Second person? Many of these tangents address the reader in second person before transitioning back to the actual plot — which, thankfully, is told in third. By the end of the novel, it’s easy enough to ignore these inconsistencies, yet that’s precisely the problem: The reader shouldn’t have to — especially not in a thriller that purportedly relies on a fast pace to carry the story along.
Other “highlights” include philosophical reminiscence on the physical manifestation of a gun on one’s hip; contemplation of Death “battling Life” in Hollywood movies; and describing sex in the most generic way possible — “she missed the way he looked at her when he was inside her, as if she were the only woman on God’s green earth” — as though the reader has yet to discover these revelations. Coben also lists a dozen adjectives in a row in an attempt at profundity, and, particularly jarring to the millennial reader, incorrectly identifies a simple quote as “a meme.”
All of these details, seemingly dropped in with no apparent purpose or foresight, distract from the pacing of the novel. If anything, they are so clumsily executed that the reader is left wondering why they are there, other than the author’s desire to insert his own editorializing into the novel. It’s a shame that the attempts at what Coben perceives as “literariness” weren’t edited out: The reader might have been able to engage with the actual “mystery” part of the novel.
But of course, since the author’s attention was divided in two ways, the plot itself also leaves something to be desired. The end reveal is much more compressed than it should have been, and Simon, our main character, somehow figures out everything on his own at the perfect times. Paige’s reappearance is the ultimate deus ex machina, and the way Coben charts the passage of time is clumsy, like he didn’t know how to keep the story chugging along.
The failure of “Run Away” to deliver at the level of prose could, perhaps, be forgiven, depending on the demands of the reader. But the failure to construct a thriller that does not rely on seemingly random reveals is a great deal less excusable. Adding in a cult for the special effects is a nice touch, but haphazardly throwing together cults, drugs, and genetic testing does not make a thriller.
—Staff writer Cassandra Luca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.