Whodunnit?

If it’s a best-selling crime novel, the answer is probably Ridgewood’s Harlan Coben.

Photo by Beatrice Le Grand.

It was a typical crowded afternoon at Starbucks in Ridgewood. Moms tending their babies. Workers grabbing a latte for the road. A line at the counter. I was there to meet a man of mystery, a mystery writer, to be precise.

A tall man entered, carrying a briefcase. He was bald—much like the man pictured on the book jacket of Live Wire and other best-selling thrillers, but I couldn’t be sure. Was this Harlan Coben?

The bald man smiled. I waved him over. After exchanging greetings, I ordered a caramel macchiato. “Hot tea for me,” he said. We took a seat by the window. Would he talk?

Coben’s voice was deep and resonant as he began to recount his childhood in New Jersey, his years in college, the struggle to become a writer after graduation.

It was sunny outside, but long shadows had permeated the café. For a moment, Coben seemed distracted, like he had something on his mind. He shook it off and started to spill the beans.

There was talk of working with his mother at the travel agency she ran, of a trip to Spain, where, for a time, he worked as a tour guide.

Coben remembered going to school in Livingston, playing basketball as a teenager. He had a friend, a roly-poly kid named Chris Christie. I needed to know: Were they still in touch?

My companion fessed up: “I had dinner with the governor last Friday night. We still talk and e-mail.” Coben paused for a sip of tea. “I think he’s a great friend. He’s passionate. He’s direct. I think he’s doing a very good job as governor. But I don’t agree with everything he does.”

They met in Little League when Coben was about 11. Coben had started the season late because he’d been sick with rheumatic fever. When he finally came out to play, he was apprehensive. Would he play well? Would the other kids be friendly?

The roly-poly kid came up and introduced himself. It was Christie.

“He was a really great kid. He pulled me in and tried to include me right away,” Coben recalled. “He still does that. If he walks into a room, he’ll find the guy who seems uncomfortable and a little out of place and try to bring him into the fold.”

Senior year at Livingston High. Coben was student council president. Christie was senior class president. Just a coincidence?

Later, when Coben started writing the novels that would become best sellers, Christie became a source.
Christie was a U.S. Attorney in Newark back then, and he had the knowledge Coben needed to check facts for his novels. In return, Coben created the character of a U.S. Attorney in his books based on his friend. But there was a twist. The character was a woman—and she was really skinny.

Coben’s cell phone rang. It was one of his kids, asking if he could go to a friend’s house after school. Did he have homework? He did. It didn’t sound good for the kid. The answer was no.

Coben has other famous friends. He went to college with Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code. Another coincidence? They keep in touch.

I was interested in what I could learn from another well-known pal: the best-selling mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark, author of the new book I’ll Walk Alone.

I tracked down Higgins Clark at her home in Saddle River. What could she tell me about Coben? “He’s an excellent writer and a good friend,” she enthused. And how does he compare to other writers in his genre? “You don’t get to be number one on the best-seller list unless you’re a very good writer and you’ve grabbed a major audience.”

And I had the proof. Coben’s latest book from Dutton, Live Wire, recently debuted at number one on the New York Times’ best-seller list. It is the fourth of his 20 books to do so. In 1997, he won an Edgar, a prestigious award given by the Mystery Writers of America, for Fade Away. And his 2001 novel, Tell No One, was turned into a successful French film starring Kristin Scott Thomas. An American version is in the works.

More evidence: Coben’s books are critically acclaimed best sellers in more than 100 countries, including France and England, and have been published in 41 languages.

But don’t call his books mysteries; he describes them as crime or suspense novels. Coben novels often involve secrets from the past and missing persons, with multiple plot twists.

Just like the characters in his books, Coben was born in Newark. Now 49, he lives the quiet suburban life in Ridgewood with his college sweetheart, Anne Armstrong-Coben, a pediatrician, and their four kids.

His novels are set in the New Jersey suburbs that he knows so well, and he often uses real locations, such as Baumgart’s restaurant in Englewood.

“Most of my books deal with the suburbs of New Jersey, where people live their lives and try to do right—but wrong still seems to find them,” Coben said. I felt I was finally getting to the bottom of things. He continued: “I have a romantic vision of the suburbs here. It’s the battleground of the American dream. It’s where we fight for happiness, and I think that makes it more interesting.”

At the start, Coben wrote stand-alone thrillers. Then, in 1995, Myron Bolitar entered his life. The character is a former basketball player turned sports agent who solves crimes involving his clients. The series featuring Bolitar became a hit.

I couldn’t help but be suspicious: Is Bolitar based on Coben himself? Like Bolitar, Coben had played hoops in high school and college. But the similarities, he said, ended there.

“Myron is me with wish fulfillment,” Coben said. “I was a basketball player, too, but he was better and stronger, faster and funnier. He’s kind of the man I want to be.” Another confession: Coben said he intentionally created tension between himself and his character; Myron has what he wants and vice versa.

“Myron’s whole goal in life is to get married and live in the burbs and have kids, which hasn’t happened. But on the other hand, my parents died young, and I miss them every day. Myron’s parents are still alive. So the relationship that Myron has with his parents, which I sometimes overwrite and get too sentimental about, is what I would imagine my life to be with my parents had they survived.” I detected a catch in Coben’s voice as he spoke about his parents.

I learned something else about this man of mystery: Coben’s next book, Shelter, will be a young-adult novel, a departure for the writer. It will feature Myron’s teen nephew, Mickey Bolitar, and the story will overlap with that of Live Wire, telling the same tale from a different viewpoint. It is due to come out in September.

Coben’s kids, who range in age from 10 to 17, inspired him to venture into this new area of fiction. He said each has read the book and loved it.

As if on cue, the phone rang. It was Coben’s daughter, looking for a ride home. Even though he is a famous, bestselling author, he still has to drive his kids around. Would he make it in time? No one knew.

Jacqueline Mroz is a freelance writer and mother, who, in her spare time, solves mysteries involving missing socks and homework.

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