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Acclaimed thriller writer Harlan Coben opens this book by stating that this is an earlier work of his and as such is raw. He himself looked at it well after the fact and decided it was considerably substandard when compared to his other works, but that we should bear this in mind when reading it. Just as well he said this, as it was a haphazard thriller that is predictable and full of holes, and in sore need of editing.
Coben's thrillers usually involve events that have happened in the past, and this one is no exception. Set at the end of the 80s/beginning of the 90s, it starts off with a mystery murder as the prologue before delving into the main plot of the book: millionairess fashion model turned design company owner Laura Ayars is in love with millionaire golden basketball ball player David 'White Lightning' Baskin. A dream couple in every sense of the word, we meet them on their honeymoon in Australia, madly making love and revelling in each other's gorgeous bodies. When David goes for a swim and doesn't come back, Laura waits almost a day before panicking, by which time it's too late. David is missing, presumed dead, and her dream world is shattered.
However, this is a thriller, and nothing is EVER as it seems. Enter various family and friends on both sides, the estranged brother and the mysterious best friend, as well as the occasional mystery paragraph where Coben's genderless clueless killer is trying to satisfy his or her thirst for murder and is determined that certain secrets be kept under wraps.
Coben certainly throws us as many curve balls as he can, but this book is all about the pace of the throwing and the frequency of the balls as opposed to how accurate or measured they are. The writing is frantic, the filler unnecessary and skimmable, and the characters either too perfect or too stereotypical. The author was certainly right in his introduction to the book: this is a raw piece of work, and although many aspiring writers may look at this and wish they were capable of writing something of a similar calibre, to make it as the top as Coben sometimes is considered takes much more than this. James Patterson manages to gives us the fast paced superficial tales because the plots are often so full and fast, but here the actual plot itself isn't that deep or challenging were you to write it out on paper, adn it starts to show.
The ending becomes almost too preposterous and there are holes all over the place that would wipe out the possibilities of this ever getting this far, but in all fairness, having read the intro I certainly just took it at face value, and enjoyed it in a curious sort of way. I read it after just having had an operation, and was in need of something particularly simple to contend with. This did fit the bill, and is very easy to read, but if you're after something akin to Coben's usual standard or matching some of the better thriller authors out there, then you may well be disappointed. Not one I'd recommend I'm afraid.
Review of 'Play Dead', a novel by Harlan Coben.
I am reviewing the paperback version of this novel, published by Orion books under ISBN 9781409120483. The book contains 518 pages and carries a cover price of £7.99. Genre:- Crime.
I belong to a local book swapping group and this novel was among a batch I received at a recent 'trade in' session.
Former model and successful fashion designer Laura Ayers is on her honeymoon. She and her sports superstar husband, David Baskin, are blissfully happy. They had married quietly in Australia as Laura's mother had taken a vehement dislike to the idea of her younger daughter marrying David Baskin . The couple had decided to marry secretly to avoid any arguments between Laura and her mother, ruining their day.
David has no family of his own other than an older brother named Stan, with whom he has no contact. His parents are both dead, his father having killed himself when David was a baby and his mother had died from cancer a few years previously.
A couple of days into the honeymoon, Laura has to leave David at the hotel to attend an urgent business meeting. David is happy enough to pass the few hours his bride will be away by taking a swim. Laura returns to find David is not in the hotel.
At first she just assumes he has gone off sightseeing, but after several hours pass with no word from David, she realises something is amiss. The local Australian police are called and the search for David Baskin gets under way. As a strong swimmer and a super fit professional basketball player, Laura doubts that David would have run into trouble when swimming in the ocean and fears he has met with an accident.
Laura phones David's best friend T.C., who is a police officer back in America. T.C. drops everything and flies to meet Laura. When a few days later a badly mangled body is washed up, T.C. formally identifies the corpse as David Baskin.
Naturally, Laura is devastated and on her return to America has to deal with the huge amount of press interest surrounding her husband's death. Life goes on and Laura receives a great deal of support from her parents, her older sister Gloria and T.C. David's old basketball team-mates are also a tower of strength. When Stan Baskin arrives on the scene Laura is surprised at T.C.'s hostility towards Stan. T.C. tells Laura a little of the falling out between Stan and her late husband and tries to warn her off. Laura soon realises that Stan Baskin is indeed everything T.C. has said, a womaniser, a gambler and an out and out nasty piece of work. Unfortunately, her sister Gloria has been taken in by the gamblers' charms and thinks herself in love with him. Stan threatens to break Gloria if Laura tries to get rid of him. Gloria is an ex drug addict who has led a very traumatic life and is emotionally wrecked, although now clean from drugs.
The plot revolves around Laura Baskin struggling to come to terms with the tragic loss of her husband, the deep family secrets that unfold as she tries to make sense of what has happened. She never loses the doubts that David is not really dead and her gut instincts lead her into danger, intrigue, family feuds and despair.
**My Thoughts and Conclusion**
Harlan Coben is a well known crime and thriller writer. I have read several of his series of novels which are based around a sports agents, Myron Bolitar, but this was the first stand alone novel I had tried from the author.
At the very beginning of the novel is a message from the author. He informs the reader that 'Play Dead' is his very first book, written many years ago when he was in his early twenties. He suggests readers may like to return Play Dead to the bookshelf and select an alternative novel! He openly admits that this, his very first novel, has it's flaws but says that he loves the book.
The author also explains that he has often taken characters and events from 'Play Dead' and incorporated them into other novels, something I did indeed spot as I read, having previously read some of his other books.
In my opinion, 'Play Dead' is the one of the best novels I have read from Harlan Coben. It may have been written some time ago, but I felt that the storyline was fresh, original and totally gripping. I found myself really caring about what happened to some of the characters and had this been a pantomime rather than a book, I admit I'd have been hissing and booing the 'baddies' with the rest of the audience!
Play Dead is an odd story in that the author has taken a very far fetched set of events and made them quite believable. His characters are very well drawn and although the cast of characters is rather large, it is easy enough to keep up with who is who. The plot is fast paced, the action is dramatic and the outcome is bizarre yet totally appropriate to the storyline.
It is true that this novel lacks the sharp wit, snappy story lines and slick writing of the author's subsequent novels, that said, I really enjoyed 'Play Dead'. I have no interest in basketball whatsoever, yet the game was central to the plot and my lack of knowledge was in no way detrimental to my reading enjoyment.
I really cannot recommend this novel highly enough and I wish I could award it a 10* rating! As this website will only allow a maximum of 5*, that will have to suffice.
To conclude I would definitely recommend 'Play Dead' to others who enjoy a crime novel.
Thank you for reading
©brittle1906 June 2012.
N.B. My reviews may be found on other sites under the same user name.
I've read and reviewed a few Coben novels now and consider him to be one of my favourite authors. Unfortunately, because this was one of his far earlier pieces, it doesn't have the same flair as the rest of what I've read and so it's not really one I'd recommend.
Upon opening the book I noticed an introduction to the book itself that was written by Coben. He tells us not to read this if it's the first book of his we've ever picked up; It was written over 20 years ago when he was in his early twenties, just starting out as a 'naïve' writer. None the less, I picked this up before knowing this partly because I'm familiar with the author, and partly because the cover tells us this is from the 'No1 Bestselling Author of Caught' on the cover, along with the tag line 'The perfect life... the perfect crime'.
We're introduced to Laura Ayars, a former model and now successful business woman with her own range of clothes, and David Baskin, a basketball superstar. The couple are eloping to Australia and enjoying a honeymoon with only few people knowing about their shenanigans, in part because Ayars' mother has never seemed keen on David, but her resistance to even giving him a chance caused friction between mother and daughter. Laura ties in the honeymoon with a business meeting in Oz, but whilst she's out, it seems something terrible has happened. David, despite being healthy, strong and a good swimmer, went for a swim and never returned, presumably drowned by the strong waters.
Obviously devastated by the sudden turn of events, Laura goes home and feels her life falling apart at the seams, but whilst she's in mourning, so is half of the country. Both halves of the couple are popular and famous, but David, a beloved basketball star at his peak and known as 'White Lightning', was a treasure that thousands are mourning. We meet Laura's family, her mum, dad and sister, as well as David's brother Stan, who turns up supposedly out of the good of his own heart despite David telling Laura the two of them seriously didn't get on. It seems he's a good-for-nothing gambler who's in trouble with B Man and needs a new con to pay him back, and he doesn't care who he hurts in the process.
Meanwhile, Laura can't shake a feeling that things aren't quite right. David drowning seemed strange because he's a good swimmer and mostly quite healthy and robust, but then she discovers some money that's been transferred from his account that now seems to be missing. Without going any more in to the premise, the rest of the novel picks up on the small threads that Laura finds as she starts a bit of her own detective work. She has the help of a friend of her late husband, but there's a sense of deceit and mystery and hidden secrets that is making finding out the truth, if there really is any, much harder to find.
What I did like about this was how well it seemed to flow; it was easy to read because Coben does have a way with words, even though this was written during his 20s some time ago. The characters all have some depth and are interesting because of this, so we want to know more, to start to empathise and to get a feel for them personally. He was able to create visuals of scenes, characters and relationships well enough so that I could imagine them whilst reading and that made me want to read more and get lost in the book.
However, the weakest link in this was undoubtedly the plot. It wasn't exactly believable and it wasn't strong in the sense of having all aspects of the premise well-covered. Some parts were quite clichéd and others didn't ring true in a sense that then undermined the characters. There was one part of the premise that was made quite obvious, despite it being a mystery to some characters, though there were still other surprises for the reader that weren't easy to guess. I liked this because it kept things interesting, knowing that I didn't know everything there was to know until the very end. Unfortunately, the ending was a tad disappointing because there was so much build up that it felt like it finished too quickly (doesn't it always?).
The other downside, in my opinion, was the pace. Several times throughout reading I thought it dragged, ruminating over the same points for a little too long. It drew out points to make them overly obvious and this took away any real sense of thrills or tension. It just didn't feel like a gripping read, despite it still being enjoyable enough if you don't pay too much attention to the premise. I found it just wasn't believable enough, exciting enough or intelligent enough to rated too highly.
Overall, this definitely wasn't one of Coben's best pieces and it's not one I'd necessarily recommend, but it should be noted it was one of his first from a while ago. It is still easy to read and enjoyable enough, but it was far weaker in terms of plot and characters than either crime thriller or Coben fans would probably want and expect.
518 pages over 32 chapters plus epilogue.
Having selected this novel from a pile of offerings by this author, I wish I had bothered to read the introduction before checking it out of the library. It begins like this:
"Okay, if this is the first book of mine you're going to try, stop now. Return it. Grab another. It's okay. I'll wait."
Coben goes on to explain that he wrote the book 20 years ago and has not edited it since. He states that it is flawed and implies that it is rather poorly written, but reassures the reader that he still loves this book. I hadn't read anything by him before so I thought that I'd still give this a whirl. Frankly, I wish I'd listened to his advice.
-- The premise --
A ridiculously gorgeous and rich model turned supremely successful business woman secretly marries a stupidly handsome and rich pro athlete at the top of his career. While on their secret honeymoon, David disappears and it soon transpires that he has drowned. Or has he? Driven by her grief, Laura is compelled to discover exactly what happened to her new husband, even if it means drawing a killer's attention to her.
-- My thoughts --
The prologue gave an immediate flavour of the writing style: clichéd and overly dramatic. Set 29 years earlier than the main storyline, it clearly directed my attention to the past as an important element of the plot. Stylistically, it reminded me of the opening sequence of a horror movie (or even a Point Horror story!) as an unidentified woman argues with a man who is then murdered by an unseen hand. It succeeded in inducing some curiosity from me but was very poorly written, as was the whole book.
The opening chapter launched me into the world of the rich and famous. Personally, this alienated me a little from the start as I would rather read about 'real' people. A top model and a pro athlete just makes it all seem a bit Jackie Collins - especially as the first scene opens on the special couple's honeymoon with them joking about how worn out they are. (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge!) Oh - and the ex model, who retired at 23, was Businesswoman of the Year. The characters reminded me of a high school novel that focused on the homecoming queen and top jock. Obviously, there are real people who are incredibly talented, but this just felt very one dimensional and I found it difficult to care about these characters.
I quickly found the focus on physical beauty and admiration rather tedious, (yes, they're gorgeous, I understand that, now please stop writing about their glistening skin,) and the clunking sexual puns could be spotted several lines ahead of their wince-inducing dénouement. Early on, David actually uses the cliché 'you've made me the happiest man in the world' followed by 'I couldn't live without you'. I felt like I was reading a Mills and Boon offering. This insistence on physical beauty continues throughout. Take the following example:
"When Laura and [close friend] Serita entered the Heritage of Boston Bank together, everyone stopped. Typewriters halted their clacking. Heads turned. Eyes stared. Mouths dropped. Men gawked. Walking alone, Laura and Serita could make a man's eyes water; looking at them both at the same time could cause a cerebral accident."
It makes me wonder how they made it to the bank without causing traffic accidents. This actually isn't the whole description, but you get the idea. This is very bad chicklit pretending to be good crime fiction.
From the opening it is clear that David's disappearance is more complicated than the tragic shark death (yes, really) his policeman friend sadly reveals to the grieving widow. Switches in third person perspective make it clear that Laura is right to be suspicious: everyone around her seems to have secrets related to her husband's disappearance. Why is some of David's money missing? Who is the new mystery player who has taken David's spot on the team? And why was Laura's mother so firmly against her relationship with David?
The trouble is, although there are a lot of questions, the answers are disconcertingly obvious to the reader (at least, they were to me, and I deliberately read crime fiction with my brain switched off) and despite Coben's best efforts at introducing twists and turns into the plot, from about a fifth of the way through I had most of the answers. Furthermore, a fifth of the way through was 100 pages; this book needed a better editor as it would have felt a lot more tightly paced if it was a good 100-150 pages shorter.
The characters are firmly one dimensional, which is how Coben justifies his ludicrous conclusion. David is motivated purely by his love of Laura; Laura is driven by her love of David; and everyone else is determined to keep secrets from the past locked away. Motivations are incredibly simplistic and do not feel sufficient, even if you assume that several of the characters are insane. The most interesting character and exception to the rule is Stan, David's brother and a weasel who tries to better himself. His slips back into being an evil idiot are perhaps inevitable but I found he added some interest to an otherwise bland cast. That said...his romantic and moral path was ultimately rather predictable.
-- Final thoughts --
Predictable plotting and one dimensional characterisation do not have to equal a bad novel, but I would struggle to identify a redeeming feature in this instance. The writing style is poor: clunky, clichéd and lacking variety in sentence structure. The book is too long and feels over written. I would probably still try a later Coben work as reviews I have read online suggest that this is not typical of his oeuvre, but I was disappointed with this and won't be rushing to read another. If you've never read anything by him and would like to try, I'd follow his advice: don't start with this one.
While recently shopping online at Tesco I had a quick look through the paperbacks to see what was new and found this Harlan Coben novel. As a big fan of his I promptly bought it for £3.99 having no idea that Play Dead may only just have been published but was actually written over 20 years ago. Not only that but it had been left as Harlan Coben originally wrote it 20 odd years ago so in the front he warns the reader if this is the first book of his they are going to read "return it and grab another" so I think he readily acknowledges this isn't his best work. Not very reassuring to be honest when you've just spent money on the book!
Laura Ayars is an ex-supermodel turned fashion businesswoman, fabulously wealthy and gorgeous. She has been having a relationship with David Baskin a world famous basketball player and they decide to elope to Australia to get married. Whilst there she has a business meeting so leaves David to practice and have a swim while she's gone but David never returns. Once she realises he is missing she calls his best friend T.C, a cop, who immediately flies over to help. Clothing is found, shredded and ripped, and then T.C identifies a body as David. Laura returns home from her honeymoon as a widow but then strange anomilies are found in David's bank account and it seems someone will go to any lengths to stop Laura finding out why.
Also in this book are Laura's parents, her father James who is a doctor, her mother Mary who is also beautiful, her aunt Judy who is a college teacher and her sister Gloria an ex-drug addict. David's family consists only of his brother Stan who he didn't get on with. Aside from the family members there is just T.C, Serita another model and long time friend of Laura's and a local policeman in Australia who decides to help Laura when she explains about the suspicious circumstances surrounding the missing money.
It all sounds very Harlan Coben doesn't it? A mysterious death and people trying to prevent the truth coming out but it lacks his more recent finesse. Firstly his sense of humour is absent from this book. Harlan Coben to me always makes me think of funny one liners which can be delivered during any situation to lighten the mood. There aren't really any in this book. His plots are usually so complicated with so many twists and turns the reader can never guess who did what and why but this book lacks that detailed genius and frankly I knew exactly what had happened very early on. I don't think he intended the reader to guess so early but unfortunately the plot isn't hidden very well and apart from one particular fact about the true story I guessed the whole thing about a quarter of the way into the book!
Of course several more people die but again I knew who'd done it and some of the twists that are supposed to lead us in the wrong direction actually seem to point us directly back in the right direction. It really isn't what I've come to expect from Harlan Coben who usually has me fooled until right near the end of the story.
Don't get me wrong though, this is still a good read and will keep you engrossed for the duration, it's like reading a thriller written by someone else and as long as you aren't expecting Coben's usual clever style of writing this novel will entertain you. If we hadn't been warned right from the word go that this was a novel he wrote over 20 years ago I would have been puzzled to say the least and probably would have repeatedly flicked back to the front cover to make sure I was reading a Harlan Coben book!
Overall it's a bit contrived and the secret elements of the plot are not well hidden at all and most readers will guess the entire plot very rapidly. It lacks his humourous one liners and none of the characters really meant anything to me, I wasn't bothered about any of them. It's a reasonable read and another author probably would have got away with it without any questions but Harlan Coben is so much better these days than he was when he wrote Play Dead that it doesn't do him justice. If you've never read any of his books don't just not start with this one don't read it at all! If like me you've read them all and want to read it just because then make sure you realise it isn't up to his normal standard.
A mediocre read that I can only give a mediocre 3 star rating to.