No Second Chance, by Harlan Coben
What She Knew: A Novel, by Gilly Macmillan
Somehow I managed to pick up two books, one by a familiar writer and another new to me, that roughly touch on the same subject. Both involve a parent discovering that a child has disappeared and both falling under suspicion before the situation is solved. Coben’s book is a little older book from the US, released in 2004. The Macmillan book takes place in the UK and was published at the end of 2015. I’ll do a summary and then go over where they’re similar and different.
To start out with the Coben book, it’s pretty amazing how technology has changed our lives in 16 years. We’re in a world still three years away from the first iPhone. The idea of being able to use a phone to access the internet and using GPS for location were brand new and concepts Coben wanted to highlight as part of solving this crime. It’s all common now and a writer might focus more on the idea of law enforcement being able to hack a device to listen in or even watch conversations and how it’s impossible to find a phone booth when your battery dies. But I’m wandering away a little.
The main character in No Second Chance is Dr. Marc Seidman, a plastic surgeon who has mainly built his career doing service work in third world countries helping children with birth defects or injuries from local conflicts. He wakes in the hospital and quickly learns that he and his wife has been shot. The wife has not survived and his six-month-old daughter Tara has disappeared. Seidman is greeted almost immediately by two detectives assigned to the crime who interview him as quickly as possible. Seidman calls his best friend from high school, now an attorney, when it becomes obvious that the police see Seidman as a suspect to help insulate him from the police.
Seidman himself can’t remember the crime except in glimpses. The mystery deepens when he learns his father-in-law has received a ransom note saying that Tara has been kidnapped and demanding a million-dollar ransom.
As the story develops Seidman links with a female detective who has left the FBI under cloudy circumstances. We also meet a former female child star (from a show that sounds a lot like Full House) who is now bitter and more that a little psychotic and her even more psychotic man friend who seem to have some association with the crime. We also meet a former Iraq vet who Seidman manages to convince to help.
I’m a Coben fan and have mentioned elsewhere that he’s one of those writers I turn to when I want to be reminded of the fun of reading. His thrillers have heroes that are funny and take snark to new levels. The stories have lots of twists and turns. He also manages to incorporate popular music into his books that somehow seems to both help you identify with the character and also helps place you in the time period of the book. Coben started publishing in the 90s so this is a, so far, mid-career book. It’s a fun read with excellent good guys and bad guys and an ending that made me a bit weepy.
Ginny Macmillan’s book has some similarities and differences. In her debut novel we meet divorced mother Rachel Jenner. She takes her eight-year-old son Ben for a walk in a nearby park. She lets him run ahead and by the time she catches up he’s vanished. Police are called and searchers are enlisted but there’s no sign of him.
As in No Second Chances, Jenner begins to attract the suspicion of police, as well as the press and public. For some discussing news stories on the internet it’s obvious that she’s a terrible mother and is probably guilty and should be hanged as soon as possible. Through mostly her own investigatory work Jenner begins to solve the crime on her own, much to the irritation of the police.
One of the interesting core differences in the two books is how the lead character parents and the crimes are portrayed from the start. In No Second Chances the crime is a mystery even to Marc Seidman. He goes through periods where he wonders if he’s the killer because of his memory loss and the clues piling up against him. It’s mostly his obvious good-guy nature that keeps you rooting for him through the book. On the other hand, in What She Knew we’re with Rachel through the crime itself. Like Seidman she’s the one telling the story (though in this book the narrator switches between her and an investigator). Anymore there’s always a possibility that a writer will pull a “Gone Girl” on you but all the same you need to follow what’s there. So you’re seeing the story from both her frustration at not being believed and from the police frustration when they feel she’s working against them. In No Second Chances we switch between Seidman and a third-person narration that give hints at other action in the story but only enough to keep tension or mystery going.
Both use what in science fiction they’ve come to call a “trope” of innocent family member assumed guilty until he/she can prove innocence. It’s effective because we get pulled along in the frustration and the desire to get the truth out. The odds of a guilty parent are smaller in child abduction than spousal murder according to the Polly Klaas Foundation. 99.8% come home, 9% are abducted by a family member in a custody dispute, 3% by non-family members in commission of a crime, less than 1% by a total stranger or about 100 per year. But there have certainly been notorious cases of a parent staging a death or abduction and then blaming a stranger. Those stick in the mind and probably could influence police investigations.
A unique element in Macmillan’s book is the British press, which in itself is adversarial, and the introduction of comment sections at the end of articles letting anyone make guesses about anything. It definitely adds to the tension in this book.
Both books earn a healthy four of five stars because we’re saving the five stars for literary excellence and neither of these strive for more than powerful entertainment. I like to be entertained and they can have my four stars with a smile.