Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On the Street Where You Live

There's a reason cops don't like going out on domestics. It gets messy.

Thieves, killers, dealers, gangsters,whatever -- you pretty much know what to expect.

But family squabbles? Runaways? Missing children? Custody battles? Abuse?

It's enough to tear your heart to pieces.

Which is why, as far as the curious sub-sub-genre of domestic noir goes, there’s really no need for lower-than-low life forms or exotic serial killers and hit men to set off fireworks. For most of us, noir hits us hardest when it hits us where we live. Which explains why the domestic noir has enjoyed such a long, thematically unwavering history, stretching from James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce right up to Harlan Coben’s latest tangled family drama. There's a world of hurt out there, and much of that hurt is done in the name of love.

The books of Harlan Coben are ample proof of that. In fact, he's pretty much nailed the market lately. It's been a conscious reinvention, as he puts it, of his "brand" -- moving from his glib, popular Parkesque tales of hands-on sports agent Myron Bolitar to his hyper-popular thrillers full of parents and children, husbands and wives and neighbours and friends all being bashed around by the inevitable revelations of deep dark secrets from the past. The first of these domestic noirs (or whatever you want to call them) was Tell No One in 2001 (which has recently been made into a rather effective French film -- they "get" noir over there). But hints of what was to come in Coben's work were already creeping into the increasingly dark Bolitar series by then -- and Coben has, in fact, occasionally revisited his series character (although even Myron's adventures seem wrapped up more and more in domestic and familial angst).

There are bystanders a-plenty in Coben's work these days but few are innocent. Nuclear families seem to always be heading for some sort of nuclear accident or another. Husbands, children, wives -- they all disappear, and thise who remain must sort out the pieces, the lies, the deceptions, the secrets. If there's a common theme in Coben's work these days it's that the truth will eventually come out -- and it will fuck you up. Guaranteed. All secrets do is delay and increase the damage. It's generally great stuff; gripping and nasty, and the generally easily identifiable family settings hit home hard.

I said "generally." We recently chose Hold Tight, Coben's 2008 ma-and-pa thriller, for Murder Ink, our mystery reading group that meets once a month at the local Barn O' Novels, and I've gotta admit I was a little disappointed. Part of the appeal of Coben's latest works has always been how accessible they've seemed to me; how well he's mined that "just regular folks" vein.

But in Hold Tight, it seems the vein is tapped out. It's definitely worth a read, and there's definitely some hard questions asked, but there's something a little too forced, a little too irregular, a little too Huxtable about the Bayes, the beleagured family around whom the action swirls. Does Daddy Mike really have to be a former pro athlete turned brilliant surgeon? Does Mommy Tia really have to be a brilliant lawyer? Does kid sister Jill really have to be such a perfect little precocious princess?

Even the New Jersey suburb it all takes place in seems a little too tidy.

Perhaps the squeakiness of the Yuppie family unit here has a point -- maybe how too successful a career or at least pursuit of that successful career can damage a family? - -but the actual story doesn't need it. It becomes window overdressing. When the sixteen-year old son Adam goes missing -- a moody sixteen-year-old whose best friend recently committed suicide -- it seems sufficient enough to me. After all, what parent wouldn't feel their guts twisting at that?

And the fact Adam's disappearance may have been sparked by Mike and Tia's own attempts to spy on him, using surveillance software on his computer, makes for plenty of guilt to go along with their growing apprehension. And begs some serious questions about privacy versus parenting.

The parents' desperate hunt for their son sets is gripping enough, and there's a nifty sideplot as well, concerning an outraged sadistic killer out there out to defend the honour of a hurt little girl. That the two seemingly diverse plots -- and that the themes, of honour betrayed, of promises broken, of love polluted, will all ultimately converge -- is a given.

But what might have been a hard, tough exploration of these themes is amped up to the breaking point, as though Coben was trying to get too much off his chest at once. Make no mistake -- there's plenty of great stuff here, but it's diluted by the high-flying upper middle class family life, by a criminal conspiracy that lies at the root of it all that's just a little too over-the-top to fully buy and by a plot that tries too hard at times to twist and turn. Sometimes larger-than-life isn't as large as life.

It's like Coben turned it all up to eleven, and forgot to turn it back down at least occasionally.

Canadian author Linwood Barclay’s latest, Fear the Worst, also hits the eleven mark, but fortunately the author remembers the importance of dynamics. It's a solid addition to the suburban noir sub-sub-genre, and bears more than an echo of Coben's recent work. But it’s the sheer nothing-specialness of most of its characters that really brings it back home.

A divorced couple, a good daughter, a wild friend, a fragile ex-wife, new relationships, the shards of old ones, a mopey stepbrother, office squabbles, slick salesmen, a cookie cutter sub-division – if there’s anything vaguely exotic about any of this, I sure missed it. Even the broken couple at its core, used car salesman Tim Blake and his ex, Suzanne, aren’t the perpetually squabbling wolverines so often depicted in literature and film, but normal, battered adults simply trying to rebuild their lives, hoping they haven’t messed up their seventeen-year-old daughter Sydney too badly. They carry on, trying to do as right as they can. Just like you, just like me. Good intentions all around.

But we all know where they can lead. And for Tim, it’s the moment Sydney doesn’t come home from her summer job at a local hotel. She’s no angel, Tim ruefully concedes, but things take an abrupt turn when the hotel staff claims to have never heard of her, and Tim’s increasingly frantic search eventually strips bare the safe, smug patina of banality that passes for the pursuit of happiness. Lies, hate, deceit, shattered families, fraud, alcoholism, jealousy, prostitution, loneliness, rape, even murder – none of it is quite as far away as you might think. By the time Barclay jacks up the tension to Hitchcockian (or at least Cobenian) levels, you’ll be peering through the shades, wondering what the neighbour’s doing in his garage this late at night.

And where your own daughter is.

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