When I first started the #52booksin52weeks challenge in 2018, I posted my list of finished books divided into three categories. Fiction, non-fiction and Harlan Coben.
My dad introduced me to Coben when I was home from college one winter break, and it’s safe to say I became addicted. That year, 12 of my 52 books were by him. That warrants its own category, right?
Now, I am almost through his entire anthology and eagerly anticipate the release of a new book every spring.
Which is to say, I could not wait to get my hands on a copy of his latest mystery, The Boy from the Woods.
The Boy from the Woods is a mystery surrounding Wilde, THE man from the woods, and Hester Crimstein, famed lawyer. When Hester’s grandson, Matt, approaches her with a request — help find a missing, bullied schoolmate — she can’t say no; after all, Matt has never asked her for anything.
Hester uses her popular TV program, Crimstein on Crime, to garner publicity for the case. But she’s publicly embarrassed when, just a few days later, Wilde finds the missing girl (Naomi) and she returns to school.
That is just the beginning. Because a few days later, Naomi disappears again. So does Naomi’s worst aggressor, the son of a very wealthy and powerful businessman, with ties to a highly divisive presidential candidate. It’s suspected that this could be a case of two lovers running away to be together, the antagonizing and bullying just a facade.
Four days later, a finger shows up in the mail. Wilde and Hester are back on the case to save the missing kids and discover the dangerous connection between them.
When Harlan Coben released Run Away in 2019, the book came with an author question and answer at the end. In one of the questions, Coben said that Run Away was probably his favorite book he had written (or the one he was most proud of, or something like that).
At the time, I agreed. The ending to that book still shocks me to this day, it was that good.
I have read a few since then that have made me reconsider this stance, and if you like mysteries and twists and just pure insanity, I suggest these three I’ve read during quarantine: Gone for Good, Tell No One, Just One Look.
Also, in 2018 I read Fool Me Once and the end to that was brilliant and shocking.
The hardcover edition of The Boy from the Woods comes with no such Q&A and I have a good suspicion as to why… it’s just not his best.
Let me start with the things I liked.
First, I love the return of old characters and Hester is one of the best. It was really great to get to know more about her family and backstory, including the death of her son and her relationship with Wilde. I was thrilled she had a love story arc and found myself decently invested in that.
Unfortunately, I was more invested in that than I was in the mystery.
Second, I liked the character of Wilde and the description of his home and antics in the woods. His little “bubble house”, which is just what I called it in my mind, was so neat. His ability to know the woods like the back of his hands is so interesting. I liked his heartache over the “relationship” he had with Hester’s daughter-in-law and the ending was satisfying for him.
That said, I feel like the book description sells itself on the premise of Wilde’s unknown background and the intrigue surrounding his childhood. And then we really get no answers about that, or find out what truly happened.
Finally, I love the intermingling of storylines and the understanding that all of Coben’s characters exist in the same world. It’s a small detail, but every now and then he’ll drop references to previous books that always make me laugh. In this book, that reference was to Hester arguing in favor of her client, one who had punched a homeless man in Central Park. Um… Run Away anyone?!
Coben always does that so well.
Having said this, the book let me down in more ways than I would have liked.
For starters, and I understand this is just me personally, Coben’s books are such an escape. I get lost in them, lose sense of time and place, and wind up finishing them in almost one sitting. I get that sucked in.
That wasn’t possible with The Boy from the Woods because it played so (too?) strongly on current events. There was a very Trump-like, divisive and corrupt politician near the center of the mystery, who happened to have his own mini “Me Too” scandal. Because of this, I couldn’t escape into the book as much as I wanted.
Additionally, I was disappointed by the emotional ties in the main storyline. Typically, the central character or two are directly tied to the mystery. That adds a sense of urgency and heightens emotional levels because the central characters are so attached to the safe resolution of the mystery.
Here, the interest in the case from Wilde and Hester is somewhat detached or one chain link too removed from that urgency. They have ties to the case, sure, but they aren’t intense or life-altering.
My final piece of criticism is that the first 100 pages or so seem meaningless. Of course, they aren’t. But we get invested in the disappearance of Naomi, only to find out she was trying to raise attention to herself by faking her disappearance. It’s almost like restarting the novel on page 100.
Yes, we needed the background later on down the line. But did it need to take up that much of the novel for it to have only been a game? I keep wondering about this.
It’s a Harlan Coben novel, so of course my standards are high. To me, his best is better than any other mystery novelist I’ve read.
But when I’m more invested in romantic storylines than the mystery plot, even I can admit he missed the mark.
Still, the book is worth the read. If you love Harlan Coben, you have to read them all. I’m glad I did and I still enjoyed it. Compared to others I’ve read, this one falls short.
If you are new to Coben and just discovering him, let me recommend some others to start.
The Boy from the Woods won’t be on my list of Coben favorites, but it’s still a damn good book.
3 out of 5 stars.