The Jew, the Wasp and the long arm of the law

The Jew, the Wasp and the long arm of the law

For JN Life magazine March 2021

Harlan Coben says he really only has two main interests — “writing and family”.

The multi-award-winning novelist — with a staggering 75 million books in print worldwide — is very clear. “I think it’s tough to be a writer with a hobby. Part of writing is guilt: so every time I would want to do something more enjoyable — or classically more enjoyable, I don’t know, collect vases or whatever people do — I think, nah, you should be writing. I feel like that most of the time. If I’m doing the car pool, or taking a hike in the woods — there’s always a part of me that says, I should be writing. There’s a lot of guilt involved in doing what I do. I don’t relax well, so if I go on a family vacation, I always write in the morning, because otherwise I’m not balanced. I’m not good with down-time”.

Coben’s devotion to his craft has paid off handsomely. He began writing while still working in the family travel firm run by his mother and grandfather, and in 1990, when he was just 26, his first thriller, Play Dead, was published, followed by Miracle Cure in 1991.

But Coben really hit pay dirt in 1995 with Deal Breaker, the first in his series of Myron Bolitar novels, which attracted a huge audience of fans as the series built.

The Bolitar books — there are 11 to date — feature the eponymous Myron, a former star basketball player who has been forced into other work — a sports agent with a law degree — after an on-court injury terminates his career. Like Coben, Myron is Jewish, with a warm, loving family. Unlike Coben, however, Myron gets into some terrible, and frequently violent, situations, from which he is often rescued by his long-time best friend, Windsor Horne Lockwood III, fabulously rich and the Waspiest of Wasps (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants).

There is a long-standing cast of characters in the Bolitar books, who crop up not only in the series, but occasionally in Coben’s equally popular stand-alone novels, several of which have become TV or feature films. And the hard-working Coben has also written three Young Adult novels featuring Myron’s nephew, Mickey Bolitar. He’s even published a book for children, The Magical Fantastical Fridge.

But now Windsor Horne Lockwood III, frequently introduced to readers by his trademark way of answering the phone — “Articulate”, he commands his caller — gets a book all of his own, the perfectly-titled Win, Harlan Coben’s newest novel.

It is, as fans have come to expect, an exciting thriller, full of twists and turns. Coben leaves the reader guessing until the very last page. It has to be said that Win is an unlikely hero — he’s more of a sociopathic anti-hero, really, with a worrying fondness for over-the-top violence and equally over-the-top sex. But the genial Coben, who couldn’t be less like Win if he tried, reveals that Win is actually based on his real-life best friend and former room-mate at Amherst College. the prestigious university the pair attended in the mid-80s.

“Yeah, the Jew and the Wasp”, laughs Coben. He knows they couldn’t be more different, and yet his unnamed template — who, apparently, has just such an aristocratic, upper-class lineage — remains his best friend to this day. And, Coben thinks, his friend enjoys the preposterous situations his fictional counterpart has to deal with.

“I always loved the idea of a sidekick”, he says, citing Holmes and Watson and Batman and Robin. So that’s why he created Win for Myron. “I took my college roommate, who has an equally obnoxious sort of name, and built on that.”

Coben — whose family name was Cohen before he was born, but changed by his lawyer father Carl when he married Coben’s mother Corky in the early 1950s — is the middle son of three brothers. He is named Harlan, or Chaim, for his paternal grandfather, who died before he was born. He has early memories, as a little boy, of huge Passover events with more than 100 people, made up of the “patriarchs” — a group of five or six close friends of his maternal grandfather, and their extended families. The “giant” Seder used to take place at Goldman’s Hotel in New Jersey, now a very fancy and spacious establishment called the Wilshire.

From the way he tells it almost everyone in his family either studied law or became lawyers, too. Both his older and younger brothers attended Harvard Law School, though they became successful businessmen, and law was his original destiny, too.

“I had applied to, and was accepted by, Chicago University Law School. But my grandfather said he needed someone to help him in the travel business, and he knew I wanted to write, so he said, why don’t you defer your place for a year?” And the year became two years, and eventually Coben stayed for eight years in the family business, never went to law school, but had a good time travelling the world on behalf of Club ABC Tours, setting up specialised trips for the company’s clients.

Among the places Coben travelled was the UK, for which he plainly has a particular affection: at least one of his books has a London setting and he also speaks fondly of Manchester, where filming is currently taking place for the Netflix version of his book Stay Close, whose starry cast includes Eddie Izzard, Cush Jumbo, James Nesbitt and Sarah Parish. If not for Covid, he says, he would have been in Manchester during the filming: as it is, he has to content himself with viewing the rushes remotely.

He has another reason for his Anglophilia: his younger brother, Craig, has lived in London for 20 years and is a fanatical Fulham football fan. Coben last spent serious time with him four years ago to celebrate Craig’s 50th birthday. The pair marked the occasion with a birthday visit to a home match at Craven Cottage, together — for the first time — with that other dedicated Fulham fan, Pointless presenter (and now novelist) Richard Osman. The three had a great time, not least because Fulham, unusually, won that day by 5:0, prompting Coben to suggest the club should pay to have him flown over more often if his presence resulted in that kind of score.
“I’ve never seen two guys so happy, they were kid-like in their joy”, notes Coben.

He speaks of himself as “a very practical person” building his dream of writing in small, but realisable, steps. At first, he says, he wanted to get published. Having done that, he tried to get another published. “I never dreamed that you could make a living as a novelist” — though with 32 books under his belt, including Win, he surely has little left to prove. “I would achieve an ambition in small ways. Could I be on the best-seller list? Could I be number one on the best-seller list? My goals were always incremental, enjoying the moment I was at.”

His writing routine, he says, “is not to have a routine. Before Covid I would leave the house a lot, and go to a coffee shop to write, or the library, or even the back of an Uber. These days I have to go to different rooms in my house”. But he has a new writing colleague, one of his four children, Charlotte, who has written episodes of The Stranger, for the Netflix series based on his novel, and who, he says, is “very funny”. His other adult children are “more science-y”, perhaps taking after their mother, who is a paediatrician.

Future Coben plans include a companion to his stand-alone novel, The Boy From The Woods, a book in which he deliberately left unexplored the wild-child origins of his main protagonist. And we may even, he says, see a televised version of Myron Bolitar — though nothing is set in stone.

If that happens, however, casting for Windsor Horne Lockwood III, the quintessential patrician Yankee, is going to be fun. I’m thinking Eddie Redmayne with a New England drawl.

  • 26 March, 2021