Noir in Festival Raymond Chandler Award Recipient 2022.
Article by Adrian Wootton
American author Harlan Coben is that rarity in the world of literature, one of a handful of crime thriller writers whose work is published in just about every major country in the world and is a household name because of the phenomenal popularity of his novels (75million sales and still counting) in, more or less, all of them. He is also a multi-award winning writer and the only one to have won the prestigious Anthony, Edgar and Shamus awards almost simultaneously and in a career of over three decades has now delivered some 33 novels.
These facts alone would make him a worthy recipient of Noir in Fest’s ultimate accolade: The Raymond Chandler Award but there is something that rises above all of these factors, simply put, he is a brilliantly talented master storyteller, whose work entertains and enthrals in equal measure. And that, above all things, makes Harlan Coben and his array of marvellous novels so worthy of celebrating.
Begin at the Beginning
Harlan Coben was born in 1962, into a conventional Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey and grew up in the nearby Livingston. In the early 1980’s, he studied at the prestigious Amherst College where, as an undergraduate, he discovered his passion for writing (he also cites reading William Goldman’s classic 1970’s thriller Marathon Man as a major influence). It was at college he met his future wife, Anne, with whom he has 4 children and still lives in the town of Ridgewood New Jersey to this day. To rewind, after graduating in 1984 and a period working as a travel guide, when he got to visit various European countries, he managed to seriously start to carve out a career and published his first two novels, Play Dead in 1990 and Miracle Cure in 1991. Coben himself is very self-deprecating about these early efforts (which have remained out of print for many years) but they did launch his career.
Myron and More
By 1995, influenced by the sardonic humour of Robert B Parker’s Spenser novels, Harlan Coben began to really hit his stride, with the novel Deal Breaker which introduced his most famous character, Myron Bolitar. Myron, a believable empathetic and wisecracking hero, is part autobiographical (both are Jewish, college basketball players and from New Jersey) and as Coben says himself “part wish fulfilment”. The basketball star turned sports agent and occasional investigator, Bolitar would then feature in 10 subsequent novels appearing intermittently until (and most recently) 2016 ‘s Home. Creating a group of returning characters, friends, family and colleagues to accompany Myron on his professional and personal adventures (including and especially his right hand – anti hero – best friend, Windsor Horne Lockwood 111 or “ Win”), he made an ensemble that readers became familiar with and loyal to. Inserting these protagonists in a conventional, contemporary environment (largely around the East Coast and New York, although other locales, including Florida, do feature from time to time) and building ingenious plots, full of gripping twists of suspense, punctuated by explosive violence and leavened with a nice line in dryly humorous dialogue, Coben began carving a name out for himself. Indeed, with successive Bolitar stories, Coben’s reputation increased, including winning the aforementioned awards and most importantly establishing and gradually growing his core audience.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t until Coben took a break from Myron Bolitar and wrote his first stand-alone novel for 10 years, in 2001’s Tell No One, that major commercial success came calling . The book, as Coben said, was a great idea that just wouldn’t work as a Bolitar story and whilst set in the familiar surburban East Coast milieu, was very focused on throwing a hand grenade into routine middle-class family life. It also marked a significant change of tone, explicitly dialling down the ”funny for funny” stuff (as described by his agent) and ditching the jokey male clubinesss of Myron and his pals. With a grieving Doctor forced to reassess the past, as he receives a shocking message that then plunges him into dangerous, completely unexpected circumstances, Coben defined himself a new MO. This was based on ordinary people being ripped out of their comfort zones to confront uncomfortable truths, to save their loved ones and/or seek redemption for past mistakes. This thematic framework is embellished by fiendishly intricate plotting and rollercoaster twists of suspense, done in a way that still manages to be authentic and allows you to continue to suspend disbelief. In so doing, Coben really captured the wider public imagination, giving them people they could relate to and imagine themselves in the same extraordinary situations. As he himself said, in an interview with UK newspaper, The Guardian:
“I like to set my novels in places that are seemingly placid, places that are the fruition of the American dream– house, 2.4 kids, two-car garage – and show how fragile that is.” But he also wants readers to recognize the Starbucks and dad jeans, “to maybe laugh a little about their own lives”.
Thus, the platform Tell No One created lifted off Coben’s career and on a roll he produced a succession of novels, like Gone For Good (2002), The Innocent (2005), Hold Tight (2008), The Stranger (2015) right up to his most recent novel 2019’s Run Away, that built on and consolidated his status as a commercial and critical juggernaut of the noir thriller world.
Of course, Coben has returned to his favourite character, Myron Bolitar, throughout these decades, with new instalments interspersing the standalone novels. He has also diversified his output with a spin off series of young adult novels, based around Bolitar’s nephew, Mickey (beginning with 2011‘s Shelter) and most recently produced a separate novel for Myron’s long term sidekick, Win, in the novel of the same name, from 2021. Add this to two novels based around a completely new character, Wilde, former soldier, sometime investigator, with a mysterious past in, The Boy From The Woods (2020) and The Match (2022) and Coben has certainly been both prolific and varied in his recent impressive output.
Big and Small Screen Adventures
Harlan Coben freely admits to cinematic influences in his work, such as (very clearly) Alfred Hitchcock movies but at least initially he didn’t express any particular interest in partaking in adventures in the Screen trade himself. Indeed, he commented that he learnt enough about the trials and tribulations of such illustrious predecessors as James M .Cain and Raymond Chandler, to not to want follow their paths. So Coben at first watched from afar, as his agent negotiated film and TV option deals on his novels, without really getting involved.
Interestingly though, he did follow in the footsteps of many great US noir writers (as in those mentioned above but also David Goodis, Cornel Woolrich et al, when it came to French-speaking film audiences. It was France which really got Coben first known internationally and because Tell No One was such a huge hit there, it was where the first film adaptation emanated from. This in 2006, it was writer-director Guilliame Canet (My Idol), along with regular collaborator, Philippe Lefebvre (also an actor and writer), who took Coben’s novel and made it into a genuinely classy, modern Gallic noir movie which, whilst reset from East Coast USA to the outskirts of Paris, convincingly retained the core DNA of the original story. The film was a deserved critical and commercial success, particularly in the festivals and art house cinema circuits, as well as doing a lot to create new awareness of Coben’s work, especially in non-English language territories. Somewhat surprisingly, this didn’t lead to a rush of other adaptations and Tell No One remains, to this day, the solitary entry in the Harlan Coben cinematic canon.
On the small screen, however, it was a different story and a few year later, perhaps as a result of the film‘s success and the general interest in Coben’s work, French TV station TF1 commissioned Une chance du trop (2015), a 6 part adaptation of his 2003 novel, No Second Chance. This, as recommended by Coben, changed the main character from a man to a woman because he was so impressed by seeing leading actress Alexandra Lamy in another movie. Adapted by producer and writer, Sydney Galonde, with episodes also by experienced script-writers, Patrick Renault and Emile Clarmart-Marsollat and a veteran film/TV director, Francois Velleat, at the helm, the series was a popular success. Consequently, the same producing/writing team were reassembled, in 2017, for a six-part adaption of Coben’s 2004 novel, Just One Look (Juste Un Regarde).
In between this, in 2015, Harlan Coben had his first UK produced and set TV ten episode series, The Five, commissioned by UK Sky TV, this time not based on a novel but an original idea created by the author. Perhaps most importantly, this established a relationship between Coben and leading UK independent TV producer, Nicola Schindler, her Red Production company and a highly talented team of successful scriptwriters. These were lead primarily by acclaimed writer, Danny Brocklehurst (also Executive Producer) and Mick Ford, who have been a key part of the creative team on every UK production of Coben ‘s work since. Indeed, it was this team who worked with Coben to make his next UK series Safe (2018), which was a co-production between Netflix and France’s Canal Plus . Again, Safe was based on an original idea by the author but one which was absolutely in Coben’s classic suburban milieu (albeit set in the north of England), with a storyline about missing persons, which seems like it should be drawn from one his novels, so it very much has his creative “genes” stamped all over it. A solid UK cast and US lead, Michael C Hall (playing British) do an effective job of delivering the taut scripts and whilst receiving somewhat mixed reviews, Safe, was a substantial hit with audiences worldwide.
It was after this initial success that a much bigger project and commercial relationship was negotiated between Netflix and Harlan Coben. In an unprecedented deal, unlike any agreed before with a major thriller writer, Netflix agreed to develop and make series from 14 of Coben’s novels, with his direct input into all of them, as an Executive Producer. Even more uniquely, it was part of the deal that the series would be done in various countries around the world, using the specific cultural contexts and local language of the territory concerned. Of course, other major writers have had multiple books optioned and made into film and TV adaptations, from Raymond Chandler through to Stephen King and John Grisham. But no-one has inked such a single agreement on this scale, with this amount of direct artistic involvement before.
The relationship kicked off in 2020, with another Red production (and creative team, lead by Brocklehurst), this time an 8 episode mini-series, The Stranger (2015), based on Coben’s novel of the same name. Transposing action from New Jersey USA, once more to the North of England and remaining largely faithful to the book’s plot (although adding sub-plots, to give the series more of a diverse youthful stance and changing the sex of the stranger, from male to female – apparently Coben‘s idea), this is a gripping and exciting show, well performed by its excellent cast, which builds to an explosive climax.
Hard on the heels of this UK production, Netflix made an agreement with large scale Polish independent production company, ATM Grupo, to make a 6 part adaptation of Coben’s 2007 novel, The Woods. Supervised by Executive Producer, Andrzej Muszynski (who has shepherded a number of other series for ATM), the show, adapted by script- writing team of Agata Malesinska & Wojciech Miloszewski, with two directors, Leszek Dawid and Bartosz Konopka, The Series skilfully transposes New Jersey to the suburbs of Warsaw and is essentially faithful to the Coben story, although it added some interesting sub-plot elements, which give more of a local cultural specificity (exploring issues of anti-semitism) and shows the potential of Coben in a Polish context.
Meanwhile, back in Western Europe, Netflix secured an agreement with Spanish production companies, Sospecha Films and Think Studio, to make a Spanish language version of Coben’s 2005 novel, The Innocent. The 8-part 2021 adaptation was executive produced, directed and co-written by talented Spanish crime/thriller filmmaker, Orio Paulo (films: The Body, 2012, The Invisible Guest and TV series Night & Day, 2016). This time, the action is transposed from New Jersey, USA to a darkly glamorous Barcelona and surrounding areas of Catalonia.A skilful and effective translation of Coben into a sultry Mediterranean context, The Innocent maintained the consistent quality of these rapidly commissioned series.
If these weren’t enough, also in 2020- 2021, Netflix went back to one of Coben’s most popular territories in France and commissioned producer Xavier Matthieu’s company, Calt studio, for a 5 part version of Coben ‘s. 2002 novel, Gone For Good. Created by David Elkaïm and Vincent Poymori and directed by US filmmaker, Juan Carlos Medima (The Lime house Golem) with, of course, Coben, as Executive Producer, this 5 episode French version of the US novel is, as Forbes magazine, said an “intense and fast paced thriller”, whichmake good use of its glamorous settings, in Nice and filming locations around the French Riveria (shot during the Covid lockdown).
It was actually the British thriller, Stay Close (from the 2012 novel), made in the same time period as Gone for Good but released earlier that definitively set the Harlan Coben TV juggernaut alight. Created by the same Red Production team, lead by writer Daniel Brocklehurst, that had done Safe and The Stranger, this gripping thriller, returning again to the locales of the North West of England, captured the public imagination big time and was at one point the most watched English language TVseries, not only in UK but across the world!
Since this fantastic success, one more series has been launched, another Warsaw-set Polish production, in 2022, by same ATM Grupo team that did The Woods, this time turning their attention (to rather wonderful effect) to Coben’s 2008 novel, Hold Tight. Set in the same Warsaw neighbourhood as the previous series (all around a particular housing estate) and with some returning characters. But if anything this is sharper, tougher and more believable than the previous show and in terms of all the series made to date, sets a very high benchmark of performance, scriptwriting and direction.
The success of these half dozen series to date is no doubt due, in large part, to Netflix’s very astute selection of experienced companies and great creative talent in each country. But let’s not forget none of this would be possible without Coben himself, for the sheer brilliance of the original subject matter but also remarkably for his own regular creative input. He may not write or direct the shows but he is a very active producer, commenting on casting, locations, notes on the scripts, liaising with the writers and producers to make sure that each series really does have the stamp of his DNA and for want of a better word his “brand”. This definitely makes him, not only unique commercially but also creatively as surely no other author, in or outside, the genre has had this volume of work made or such input into it for TV adaptation?
The Future is Bright
Bearing all this in mind, so what next for Coben? Ah well, the popularity of Coben’s work on Netflix lead to the October 2022 unsurprising announcement of an extension in his deal with them, for several more years and 12 more novel adaptations, including, excitingly, the development of a US set (naturally) series based on his classic Myron Bolitar novels.
If all this were not enough, Coben has a deal with Amazon to write a series based on his Mickey Bolitar novels and currently in production is a 4 part show, based on the first novel Shelter which also has his daughter, Charlotte Coben, as a co-writer and producer. And speaking of novels, last but by no means least, Harlan Coben has a new novel coming out, I will Find You in 2023!
So, Congratulations to Harlan Coben, 2022 Raymond Chandler Award Winner, for the author who maybe the most prolific and hardest working writer in the Crime Thriller Genre today, it is richly deserved and well earned!