I feel cheated! And angry. I decided to swap genres for a change and chose a crime novel for my next read during my French holiday. I picked “Play Dead” by Harlan Coben at Heathrow (along “Serena” by Ron Rash, for which I will post a review soon), since I’ve always enjoyed Coben’s crime novels. I find them usually well written, with a good plot and a number of twists that guarantee some suspense. True, there is a bit of formula in his writing, but it works. When I opened this particular book, I was surprised to find an introduction written by Coben, which rang alarm bells. Here’s an extract of the introduction: “Please know that I haven’t read Play Dead in at least twenty years. I didn’t want to rewrite it and pass it off as a new book. I hate when authors do that. So this is, for better of worse, the exact book I wrote when I was in my early twenties…” Oh oh, I thought, I wish I had read this before buying the book. I started reading and became angry quickly. The quality isn’t there, the book is not well written, and it has obviously not been edited properly. The beginning of the book is set in Australia and Coben tries to make his Australian characters sound Australian in the dialogue. Alas, the result is pathetic and will probably anger any Australian. You have to be very naïve to think that by using the words “mate” or “no worries” in every second sentence, you sound Australian. These words (and others) are used in the wrong sense, and repeatedly, to the point of becoming senseless and annoying. This could have been fixed by asking someone from Australia to read these parts. The dialogues in general sound fake. Many similes are terrible or offending and patronising (“The well-dressed patrons attacked the food like the poor in Bangladesh”, “She peered into his eyes. They darted away from Laura’s glare like scared birds”,”He took a drag on his cigarette with enough intensity to inhale a tennis ball through a straw”). Other passages are just cliché (“She had been afraid of exposing herself to the devastating weapon of love”). Some techniques, such as flash-backs, are used in a clumsy way. And elements of the plot (such as the character who fakes his death and goes through plastic surgery to come back as almost himself) are, if not simply laughable, so easy to see through that you feel ashamed for Coben. Don’t get me wrong though, the book is not all bad. The overall plot is okay – even if typically Coben and predictable – and it’s not a bad read. But don’t read it if you’ve read anything else by Coben before, you will be disappointed.
Why am I angry? It’s not because it’s an early book. Many writers get better at their craft with time, and their early works aren’t as good. I’m no exception. I find this totally acceptable, this is part of a normal process. No, what really annoys me here is that this book has just been published, after many other very good ones by Coben, and that it was not rewritten, or even slightly edited by the look of it. Coben is aware of that. He says so in his introduction. Why does Coben hate it when authors rewrite their early works before publishing them? I would advise him to do so if he wants to publish others of his early manuscripts. It would benefit his readers, and him too. Coben is aware of the flaws of the novel. He states it in his introduction, “I’m hard on it, but arent’ we all hard on our early stuff? Remember that essay you wrote when you were in school, the one that you got an A-plus, the one your teacher called ‘inspired’ – and one day you’re going through your drawer and you find it and you read it and your heart sinks and you say, ‘Man, what was I thinking?’ That’s how it is with early novels sometimes.” So if Coben knows he can do better, why does he allow himself to exhibit mediocre writing, not to strive to produce the high-quality novels his readers enjoy? Isn’t he in fact looking down at us, patronizing us, treating us like children? Or is it easy money? Easy work? And what about the publisher, Orion Books? How can they allow such a book to be published by such a well-known author under their banner? Shame on them, they’re taking their readers for granted! Okay, after so much ranting and cursing, I should be more gentle with Coben and his publisher. They’ve given me precious material to use in creative writing classes. What better way to learn than to learn from errors, whether your own or someone else’s? Learn from clumsy writing, from what NOT to do? Thanks, Coben!