Harlan Coben is a master at lobbing several head-scratching puzzles into the openings of his novels and then skillfully tugging them pleasingly — and teasingly — along. You suspect they’re going to synchronize together somehow — but just how exactly?
In “Missing You,” Coben presents Kat Donovan, a third-generation New York City cop who looks “cute and perky” and “damaged,” as described by her best friend and wing-woman Stacy . Kat’s grandfather committed suicide and her father was prone to benders, disappearing from the family home for days at a time. He was also murdered two decades before the book opens, and it’s clear from the start that her familial history continues to affect Kat in ways that scream “seriously emotional baggage.”
As “Missing You” opens, several things happen in quick succession: Stacy informs Kat that she’s signed Kat up on an online dating site called YouAreJustMyType.com. While reluctantly surfing the site, Kat comes across someone she knows, her ex-fiance, who disappeared from her life 18 years earlier. Needless to say, this digital sighting opens up a can full of heartache-worms and lost-love memories — though it’s not completely clear at this stage just why he abandoned her. In another scenario, an unfortunate man, Gerard Remington, finds himself clobbered on the head and imprisoned underground. And in yet another one, Monte Leburne, the man who confessed to murdering Kat’s father on the orders of a mob boss, dies of cancer — but not before confessing that he did not, in fact, kill Kat’s father.
Then the Remington plotline introduces the admirably creepy Titus, Dmitry, and Reynaldo, and Coben’s multistranded novel really starts to take off. It further catches fire when a gloomy teenager, Brandon Phelps, turns up wanting to talk to Kat: He is convinced that his mother is missing and that only Kat can help.
As always, Coben’s storytelling and deft, clean language propel you through the book — this one’s a slow-but-steady burner that picks up in the second half — and he’s a dab hand when it comes to developing interesting, engaging characters. Kat, on the precipice of all kinds of discoveries both good and bad, is hyperaware of a giant blind spot she doesn’t want to fall victim to, but is also stubbornly and innately trusting of her own instincts:
“Cops loved to buy into their self-created myth that they have some innate ability to ‘read’ people, that they were all human lie detectors, that they could suss out truth from deception from body language or the timbre in a voice. Kat knew that that sort of hubris was complete nonsense. Worse, it too often led to life-altering disaster.”
“That said, unless Brandon was either a pure sociopath or a recent graduate of the Lee Strasberg school of method acting, the kid truly was distraught about something.”
Coben’s a terrific writer, but in this particular novel, his descriptive passages often move more swiftly and smoothly than his dialogues: an early bar scene introducing Kat and Stacy primarily seems to showcase what feels like an endless number of jaw-droppingly cringe-worthy one-liners — some funnier than others — that horn-dog men use on women. Other dialogue-based scenarios feel more drawn out than they should, despite the fact that they are crucial to exposing key plot points and revelations. And while Kat compelled me to follow her story with nary a break, too many of the other, flatter characters simply made me miss Myron Bolitar, Coben’s recurring protagonist, and his tightly knit, rag-tag circle of colleagues and friends. I missed, I realized, their snappy, knowing dialogue and warm, vibrant presence.
That said, “Missing You” delivers twists-a-plenty, including — mercifully briefly — a chilling, horrific and completely deserved revenge scene that makes the recent spate of zombie movies and television episodes pale significantly in comparison.Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. You can find her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.