May 4, 2006

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Promise Me, by Harlan Coben (Dutton, 2006)

Mystery writer Harlan Coben returns to the life of Myron Bolitar, the pro-basketball-player-turned-part-time-sleuth who also fought the good fight in seven earlier Coben novels. Also back is the enigmatic Win, a rich guy with handy crime-fighting skills and a penchant for violence, who serves as Bolitar’s friend and backup.

The book is set six years after the last Bolitar outing, and our hero, who played briefly for the Celtics before blowing out his knee, is making scads of money as a sports agent. At a party, he tries to impress two teenage girls and ends up making a promise that bites him in the ass: if you are in trouble, call me. I’ll help you out, and I won’t tell your parents. One of the girls and ends up making a promise that bites him in the ass: if you are in trouble, call me. I’ll help you out, and I won’t tell your parents. One of the girls takes him up on the favor and asks him for a ride from a drunken party. Bolitar drops the teen off at a house she claims belongs to her friend, and that is the last anyone sees of her. The girl’s parents, longtime friends of Bolitar, are less than impressed and the cops think he is a suspect.

There is another missing girl, too, the daughter of a local mobster. Hearing of the latest disappearance and Bolitar’s involvement, the mobster figures the ex-jock might have something to do with his daughter’s kidnapping, too.

Meanwhile, Bolitar is on the threshold of a new relationship — with a 9-11 widow who has children. And she’s not as pretty as his last girlfriend, or so Win keeps reminding him.

I’m thinking “eh” might be my kindest response to this book. The ex-jock turned private investigator is now a staple of the genre and I thought Bolitar was kind of tired when I first met him in 1996’s Drop Shot. Robert Parker has owned the shtick (he even has a better “dangerous” sidekick) with his Spenser novels since The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973.

You have to wonder what made Coben return to Bolitar’s world. He’s written better books since Bolitar’s last outing but still he returned to the safe serial. Did the other books not sell as well? Were fans beating down Coben’s door for another ride on the Bolitar-Win train?

The way Bolitar gets involved in this case is kind of stupid. The missing girl is the daughter of one of his longtime friends and not much tension is created by the “suspicion” that he had something to do with it. Even the cops don’t buy it once they’ve made a phone call or too.

The only one who falls for the plot thread is the mob boss, and he only buys it long enough to hire a couple of guns-for-hire to torture the truth out of Bolitar. (And I suspect the only reason these guys were hired was to introduce a character who likes to bite people’s nipples off.) There’s little natural flow in the plotline. It’s like Coben had a beginning and an ending, and didn’t much care what the bridge between those points looked like.

Promise Me has a twist ending, but it’s one of those twists that the reader has no chance of figuring out because we’re missing a key piece of information. I hate those twists. C

— Robert Greene


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