Author Harlan Coben: We live in the golden age of crime novels

Author Harlan Coben — whose 2021 novel ‘Win’ is in the Myron Bolitar universe — describes his novels as books you start when you go to bed at 11 o’clock, and stay up reading it till four or five in the morning

Harlan Coben’s latest book, Win, (Penguin Random House, ₹699) is in the same universe as Myron Bolitar. The sports agent/investigator made his first appearance in Coben’s début novel Deal Breaker (1995). Windsor ‘Win’ Horne Lockwood III, Myron’s good friend, is as blond and privileged as ever in Win, going about righting wrongs with his particular super power — tons of money.

The book, like all Coben’s books, hurtles at breakneck speed. And like many of his books, Win too has old sins casting long shadows. The 59-year-old author speaks over a video call from New Jersey in the US, on his books, social media, crime fiction and adaptions.


Win is from the same universe as Myron. Did you visualise this universe, or did it grow in the telling?

It grew in the telling. Deal Breaker was set in the ‘90s; Myron and Win were in their late 20s. Now, Win is in his mid-40s. I know the ending of every novel that I write when I start. Myron and Win’s world, however, I don’t know. I didn’t predict that one day Myron would move out of the office so Win could have his own story.

What are the pros and cons of writing a series?

I have done both series and standalone novels. I look at them in terms of painting. The Myron Bolitar series is a gigantic canvas that already has some things filled in for me. I have to work around what is already there on this painting.

A standalone novel is a blank canvas, and by the time I finish the book that blank canvas will be completely filled.

Win like many of your books, deals with old sins casting long shadows. What about this theme fascinates you?

I love the idea that the past is never quite buried. You may think you buried your past, you may think that part of you is gone, but it is not. It is what makes you who you are.

Do you agree with the classification of your books as suburban thrillers?

No. A lot of my books do take place in suburban families (The Boy in the Woods, Runaway) and a lot don’t. You can classify me any way you want, but I wouldn’t classify me that way.

So how would you classify your books?

I call them novels of immersion. The book you take on vacation, but you don’t want to leave your hotel room. It is the book you start when you go to bed at 11 o’clock, and stay up reading till four or five in the morning.

You have said you like to set your novels in places that are seemingly placid, places that are the fruition of the American dream and show how fragile that is. Why?

I have written over 30 books and a lot of them fit that category, but not all of them. Win doesn’t fit that category at all. It starts off with a murder in a high rise on Central Park West in New York City. That said, I am probably most known for putting an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. Think of a pond that almost looks like a mirror and even the smallest pebble can cause great ripples, I find that interesting.

Why do you feel that writers should have empathy?

A writer needs to get into the heads of every kind of character: the good guy, bad guy, old, young, whatever race, creed, sexual orientation. You have to be able to get into that person’s skin. That takes empathy. I think reading gives you empathy.

That is one of the great things about reading: you see other perspectives.

How difficult or easy is it to get into different characters’ heads?

It is pretty easy. That part of the writing is easy. Nothing else about writing is particularly easy. Getting into the head of a villain is just as easy as getting into the head of the hero.

You say it is easy to get into the villain’s head… but surely you don’t have villainous thoughts…

I do! (laughs) We all do… it is part of the job, to make you understand the villain. You might not agree with him but he cannot be a cartoon. He or she has to be real and come to life, have wants and desires.

One of the things I tell my children is when you see somebody, remember, they all have hopes and dreams. When you wonder what they are, where they went wrong, what happened in their life, you can start to build and create three-dimensional characters rather than caricatures.

What would you say is the reason for the popularity of thrillers?

First of all, they are entertaining. Second, we are working in a tradition that has been going on for years. If I were to ask you to name your favourite novels that are more than 100 years old, whatever you name whether Oscar Wilde, Dostoevsky or Dumas, they all have a crime. There is no great book that is over 100 years old, that is just character or prose.

Read More | Author-producer Harlan Coben on his Netflix shows and his 2020 book ‘The Boy From The Woods’

And third, is we live in the golden age of the crime novels.

Do you think this obsession with crime shows and novels is unhealthy?

No, I think it is the opposite. If anything, it is probably a healthy outlet. There has never been a situation where they have arrested a killer who reads a lot of crime novels or watches crime shows. Crime is interesting because the stakes are so high.

Characters are tested in ways that they are not normally tested in your daily life. You see your life as fairly secure, but to see it as fragile is intriguing and puts your character under stress and that makes his reactions interesting and educational to read.

You have said adaptations should not be a slavishly devoted to the text. Can you elaborate?

The worst adaptations follow the book to the letter. When James Cain, who wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity and a bunch of wonderful books, was asked, ‘Don’t you hate what Hollywood did to your books?’, he said, ‘It did nothing to my books, they are right there on the shelf!’ I have the same attitude when I adapt something; I don’t worry if it is true to the book. I worry about if it is good.

For example, the stranger in the book was a white male, computer geek, which worked pretty well on the page and also five or six years ago when I wrote it. It did not however work when I was adapting it for the show. So I said let us try changing it to a woman and Hannah John-Kamen was just perfect.

Sometimes we love the book so much that we want the TV series or the movie to be exactly the same experience as the book. Why would I want you to have the exact same experience again? I also get to work in different countries with a number of very talented directors. For example, while the book Tell No One was set in New York, the movie was set in Paris.

How do you manage to write a book a year?

Well, it is all I do! People work from 8 am till 6 pm — I should be spending those hours thinking of an idea, and writing. I should be doing more. I treat it like a job. The same way a plumber can’t wake up one morning and go, ‘Oh, I can’t do pipes today’, I have to sit at this desk and write.

In other media

  • Apart from his five-year deal with Netflix, under which 14 of his novels will be developed for the streaming platform, his Mickey Bolitar books are going to adapted by Amazon Studios. His book Tell No One was made into a French film while No Second Chance and Just One Look were made into French miniseries. Coben has also created crime shows The Five and Safe.

Is there any kind of television show you prefer to watch?

I watch TV like everybody else, I watch a variety of shows and movies, not just crime or comedies. This is the golden age of television. Streaming does not have the restrictions of networks where you have to have 22 episodes of 47 minutes for each season. Now you can have six or eight or 10 episodes to tell your story.

How important is social media for a writer?

If you are a new writer, I would advise you to avoid it; turn off your Internet and just write your book. For me, it works as an advertising tool and a way to communicate with readers. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is one of the biggest books ever, and Gillian has no social media. Dan Brown doesn’t either.

I get ideas from social media, because we live in a world of social media. So I think of crimes that involve Instagram or Twitter or Facebook. I find how people read and behave on social media interesting.

What are the lessons from the pandemic?

The biggest lesson is that the great moments in your life don’t necessarily have to be the cool trip or big party or fancy experience. The secret to life is to be able to enjoy what we call the mundane, to be able to enjoy the moments when you are alone or with a loved one or two.

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