the woods

What if the past didn’t happen the way you thought it did?

What if you could dig up the truth? Would you want to? Should you? What might you learn if you did? Such is the premise of Harlan Coben’s seventeenth crime novel, ‘The Woods’.

What’s it about?

Twenty years ago four teenagers enjoying summer camp were brutally murdered by a serial killer. Or were they? When a surprising corpse is found, County prosecutor Paul Copeland realises that the truth about that long-ago night may finally be coming to the surface. As Cope investigates what really happened that night, he is forced to confront his own guilt and the abrupt ending of his teenage romance; he was meant to be on watch duty when the campers, including his own sister, Camille, disappeared.

As past crimes clamour to divert his attention, Cope’s also trying a rape case in court and the defendants’ fathers are viciously determined to use his history against him in any way they can. Oh, and his own father, who had his own secrets, has recently died. Can Cope uncover the truth? And if he can, what might it cost him?

Opening sentence:

‘I was sitting in an elementary school gymnasium, watching my six-year-old daughter, Cara, nervously navigate across a balance beam that hovered maybe four inches off the floor, but in less than an hour, I would be looking at the face of a man who’d been viciously murdered.’

What’s it like?

Most of the twists are predictable but that doesn’t affect the drama, which remains high throughout.

This standalone novel is well constructed, full of twists and turns. Most of the twists are predictable but that doesn’t affect the drama, which remains high throughout. All the details eventually tie neatly together and fit the overarching theme of parents protecting their children. If you’re looking for a thriller to relax with – nothing too demanding – this should fit the bill.

I found some elements a tad implausible. The lengths the boys’ fathers are willing to go to in order to persuade Cope to drop the case are extreme, but I suppose having your child face a life-changing conviction and prison sentence in their teens is a strong motivator. Similarly, the relationship that swiftly develops between Cope and ex-love Lucy seemed rather sudden, but the intense pressure of their situation (and the plot of just about every action novel / film ever) makes it less surprising, if not more convincing. And… Oh, just be prepared to suspend your belief. A lot. Constantly, in fact. I only found this a problem when the KGB angle developed; I’m not interested in this kind of spy stuff, and it seemed designed to create an easy explanation for some otherwise difficult-to-explain events.

The drama’s further heightened by Cope’s involvement in, well, everything. His search for answers is also, clearly, a search for absolution, but the ending is a complex one, with guilt shared in multiple directions and ambiguity about the future.

Final thoughts

If you like your crime fiction served with a large helping of detective angst and personal trauma then this should suit you. Cope has also lost his wife to cancer, seemingly just to darken his life further, and though he’s a successful single parent, his daughter’s well-being is threatened by his devotion to his case, allowing Coben to introduce a bit of philosophising. He’s an admirable protagonist who learns that in a world of black and white right and wrongs, he might need to start perceiving greys.

Expect multiple revelations, musing on family and loss, and a world in which eventually all will be revealed, if not resolved.

‘The Woods’
Harlan Coben
Orion Books, 2015, ebook