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Play Dead by Harlan Coben

It is rather curious that Harlan Coben opens Play Dead, a 20th-anniversary reissue of the first of his mystery thrillers, with an introduction that hints at its unreadability. Is he being falsely modest? Self-deprecating? Or trying, in kindness and good faith, to guide the reader towards one of his later, better-constructed works?

That he is telling the truth in stating that he did not make any rewrites is clear. Play Dead is laden with cliché and soap opera-like interior monologues, creating a congestion that takes the book to an excessive 500-plus pages. Although these problems automatically relegate it to the thriller D-list, with adjusted expectations it is worth ploughing on for the pay-off.

What of the plot? We meet Laura Ayars, a preternaturally beautiful former model who now runs a successful business, and David Baskin, a basketball superstar who plays for the Boston Celtics, on their honeymoon in Australia. Madly in love, they have eloped after a whirlwind courtship and are unaccompanied by any relatives or friends.

The marriage is only days old when David heads out for an ocean swim – and fails to return. When a night has passed and there is no sign of him, a panicked Laura calls TC, a Bostonpolice detective and David’s best friend, for help. TC gets on the next plane, but his best efforts fail. David remains missing, presumed drowned.

From here, the plot doesn’t so much thicken as veer wildly. Between an opening prologue involving an unidentified murder 29 years before David’s disappearance; brief passages depicting a unnamed character’s recovery from extensive cosmetic surgery; the apparently groundless resistance to the marriage by each spouse’s parents; and the emergence of a new basketball star with a game uncannily similar to David’s, the experience of reading Play Dead is like bumbling your way along a dangerously unkempt garden path. You know where you’re going, but getting there is a frustrating task.

I don’t want to be unduly harsh towards Coben: Play Dead indisputably shows the promise that he has since fulfilled, and for all the laboured unctuousness of the exposition he has evidently taken care with the plotting. The twist in the tale for which he is known is present here.

There are little delights to savor. The extraordinary obtuseness of one of his main characters, who can most charitably be described as as dumb as a bag of hammers, eventually stops being annoying and instead enhances the daffiness of the entire enterprise.

That, in the end, should be the expectation for what you might get from an afternoon with Play Dead – a residual sense of charming battiness. There are some ugly scenes and nasty people, but also firm friendships and true love of the candyfloss-and-paper-hearts variety. It’s worth reading for the schlock factor, and for the reminder that all good genre writers have to start somewhere, and a lot more skill and effort goes into creating a well-written thriller than the writers would have us know.

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones

This review was previously published on


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