By Harlan Coben ’84. New York City: Dutton, 2008. 416 pp. $26.95 hardcover.

Reviewed by J.J. Gertler ’82

As a young subscriber to Motor Trend magazine, I was befuddled when one issue simply failed to arrive. Only later did I learn that my father, deciding that the special issue, titled “Love and the Automobile,” was too racy for a 13-year-old, had confiscated it.

He had it easy. Today’s parents face not the occasional magazine issue, but a daily tsunami of e-mails, images and free-range Internet mayhem, all delivered direct to a child’s bedroom. Add to that the electron-enabled menace of online pedophiles, and a parent could be excused for spending all day, every day, filtering what his or her child sees.
Take the case of Mike and Tia Baye. Faced with an increasingly sullen and detached son and unable to find an explanation, they decide, reluctantly, to monitor his computer activity. And thus begins the main plot of Harlan Coben’s latest bestselling novel, Hold Tight.

Around the Baye family play the dramas of modern suburbia. The boy next door has cancer, another boy is a recent suicide, unidentified bodies begin turning up around town, the Bayes’ daughter befriends an outcast classmate, and at 46, Mike finds it increasingly hard to play hockey without aches and pains. As Hold Tight unfolds, all of these stories eventually relate to one another, making the book a whodunit, a whydunit and a what’dshedo all at the same time—and the list of questions only builds as the tempo quickens. The discovery of how the pieces fit, along with some unforeseen cause-and-effect relationships, drive quick page turns. To be sure, a few coincidences help the plot along, but their convenience is lost in the tension as the threads come together.

Coben has been a major force in mystery writing since shortly after he left Amherst. Over time, his books have moved more into social and family issues (although Hold Tight does share a major character with the world of Coben’s longtime hero, Myron Bolitar, and gives Myron a passing nod). This book marks a clear step in that evolution. While it is still propelled by plot over character, the plot threads spring from (and in some cases define) the relationships among the players. We learn just enough about each character to serve the book’s purpose; few are given much depth. Most have interpersonal issues: those in seemingly healthy relationships fear happiness cannot last, while others have given up altogether.

At root, though, Hold Tight’s characters—good guys and bad alike—are motivated by human affection and obligation. They also force readers to examine the value of competing obligations. At what point in disclosing information to a patient does a doctor do more harm than good? What sacrifices will one family member accept in order to protect another? How much independence can a parent allow a child while carrying out the prime duty of keeping a family safe?

If this novel doesn’t sound like a typical mystery, Coben has achieved his intended result. Indeed, despite its placement on the shelf and Coben’s Edgar Award pedigree, Hold Tight is more a thriller than a mystery. The reader isn’t given enough information to get ahead of the characters, and right at the point when you’re about to learn the next important piece, the author smash-cuts from one character to the next, one plot line to the next, placing chapter breaks as Hitchcock placed his camera.

Wry and occasionally dark humor is also a staple of Coben’s books. Although it’s less in evidence here—after all, he is trying to build more realistic characters than his standard cast—it’s not repressed completely, and one quick, knowing wink is reserved for those who have attended the Fairest College.

One suspects that, as a father of four, Coben is writing from his own experience in parenting decisions; it doesn’t give too much away to hope the book isn’t all autobiographical. Hold Tight works both as a test for parents and prospective parents and an exciting read for anyone who has ever had parents.

A national security analyst, writer and broadcaster, Gertler is co-author with Michael Levin ’80 of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Pentagon.