Book Review: Play Dead by Harlan Coben

Play dead Play Dead by Harlan Coben
Orion, 2010 (first published in the USA 1990).

I probably should not review this novel. It’s an early book by the now-bestselling Harlan Coben which was published in the USA 20 years ago but never made it to the UK until now.  In his preface to this UK edition, the author writes “Okay, if this is the first book of mine you’re going to try, stop now. Return it. Grab another. It’s okay. I’ll wait.” (Short sentences are his forte.) I can only agree.

Play Dead is a grand guignol melodrama. An impossibly glossy and beautiful young couple – David is a basketball star and Laura a top model turned international fashion designer — elope and honeymoon in Australia. After a few idyllic days, she goes off to a business meeting and he goes swimming – then missing, presumed dead. A few rags chewed by a shark come into it, inevitably.

Laura returns devastated to the USA after fruitlessly trying to find out what happened to David with the help of his mentor, ex-policeman “T.J.” She’s determined not to let things lie, so while running her business (going into work once, looking at some designs and adjusting the length of the skirts) she discovers more about David’s circumstances. We find out about her family – Gloria, her sister, who is a recovering drug addict; her neurotic mother; and her workaholic surgeon father. David’s disappearance or death are related to a murder that happened years ago. Gradually, Laura zeroes in on this, despite T. J.’s strange attempts to put her off the track. David’s evil brother Stan turns up at the funeral, determined to make a buck out of Laura, soon switching his attention to damaged Gloria.

I can’t bear to write any more – the novel is very readable in a “chick lit” kind of way. It is entirely devoid of realistic detail and almost completely predictable,  but at the same time it has glimpses of how the author has developed since he wrote it. The plot turns out to be both blindingly obvious and totally ludicrous – nobody’s motivation stacks up for a second, and people do the most convoluted things for years, for no reason I can discern. I only read this book because I was going on holiday and wanted a light read:  though I enjoyed it a little bit, my main reaction is to feel silly for having bothered with it.

I read the UK edition, but I posted a picture of both the US (left) and the UK (right) covers for comparison.

According to the author's website, he wrote another early novel, Miracle Cure, which also will be re-released this or next year.  You can read his introduction to Play Dead here. I can't easily find another independent review of the novel, but there are some varied reports from readers at Amazon.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Play Dead by Harlan Coben

  1. LOL
    I hope you can find uses for this book which don´t include spending money on a stamp 😀
    Today I am quite happy that no publisher bought my first ´crime novel´. My mother still thinks it is good, though, so perhaps I should collect and destroy all copies of it just in case …

  2. Thanks for the review of this; not going on my gargantuan TBR pile. Anything I can weed out is helpful.

  3. I get a bit sick of publishers re-releasing successful authors’ earliest works in the never ending hunt for a few bucks. I remember this happening with Stephen King (back when I used to devour his books) and it actually stopped me reading him all together.
    Thanks for the warning though, I will skip this one though I have managed to mooch a couple of the Myron Bolitar novels and will try those instead

  4. I thought Coben’s latest Myron Bolitar book, “Long Lost,” was okay for awhile, then deteriorated with a very far-fetched, bizarre twist and resolution. Also, the sexism of Bolitar’s friend, Will, is hard to take.

  5. Agreed, Kathy, I thought Long Lost very poor for the reasons you say. His more recent standalones are better, in my opinion.
    Bernadette, indeed – watch out for early Rankins too (written originally under a different name but reissued under the Rankin one when he got famous). They are nowhere near as good as his later output.

  6. “Caught” was okay in comparison to “Long Lost,” agreed. “Tell No One,” a standalone is good, even better the French movie of it.

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