The other brother

The other brother

Unputdownable for the most part. Perfect choice for a train or airplane trip. Yes, that's what Don't Let Go by Harlan Coben is! Coben is an experienced whizz at the thriller genre, and he shows his chops here too. For the most part.  

The author has had  10 consecutive novels on the New York Times bestseller list. Phew! He has also won the big three awards given in the field of mystery writing: the Shamus, the Anthony, and the Edgar. With a pedigree like that, Don't Let Go has all chances of being another entertainer. And it does. For the most part.

Napoleon 'Nap' Dumas is a cop in a seemingly serene, quintessential New Jersey town with the stereotypical soccer parents, two-cars-plus-two-kids-plus-one-dog families, where kids run amok together and grow up together, and where practically everyone knows one another. He has been battling with emotional issues ever since he lost his twin brother Leo Dumas in a supposed suicide mission on the railroad tracks along with his girlfriend Diana Styles.

This was 15 years ago, when they were in high school. Nap does not buy the accident/suicide theory and, over the years, has lived with tremendous guilt of not being there for his twin when he needed him.

Mysteriously, his own girlfriend Maura Wells also disappeared the same night and has not been found since. In his guilt-ridden state, Nap converses with the dead Leo to make sense of the tragedy and find answers to the unresolved deaths. His latent anger also makes him somewhat of a rogue cop who is not averse to taking non-legal ways of dealing with criminals.

On a homicide call one night, he finds Maura Wells's fingerprints in the murder vehicle. To make matters more confusing, the dead man is Sgt Rex Canton, a classmate of his and Leo's from school days. Canton was also a member of a secret society, Conspiracy Club, at Westbrook High, their school.

This secret fraternity was populated by teens with raging anti-establishment hormones, and had Leo, Maura, Diana, besides some others, as members. Fifteen years of trying to make sense of his brother's death and looking for his missing girlfriend has led to dead ends for Nap.

So, when Maura's prints are found in connection with Canton's death followed by murders/suspicious deaths of other members of the now-defunct Conspiracy Club, Nap knows he is on to the missing links that include a Nike missile control centre with suspected nuclear payload in the secluded part of the suburban town.

Enlisting the help of Ellie, his friend who is family to him now, and Augie Styles, Diana's cop dad, who is his mentor, Nap uses his policeman instincts and infrastructure (sometimes illegally) to get to the bottom of the mystery and connect the missing dots. Layers of the mystery are unpeeled, leading to more confusion, and finally the denouement.

Coben's mastery is evident through most of the narrative, and the reader is intrigued, wanting to turn the next page to know whodunit. In parts it reaches a stage where everyone is a suspect. Even the protagonist: is he involved in the whole mystery in a subconscious, mind-altered manner? Vigilante justice? The narration of torment, vivid as hell, makes one feel claustrophobic and wanting to make an exit from the pages with the heart keeping pace with its thudding.

However, the characters in Don't Let Go sometimes feel two-dimensional and do not leave a mark as real people. Nap, the hero, gives out the vibes of a middle-aged, world-weary cop, whereas he is in his early 30s. Other secondary characters don't seem as well etched out as one would have expected.

Nevertheless, the story paces along with nary a dull moment. Everyone has a plausible reason for their deeds. Then who is the bad person/persons? Underneath the calm of the town lurks eeriness, evil, unease and human frailty.

"The past does not simply die away. Whatever happened here still haunts these grounds. You can feel that sometimes - when you visit ancient ruins or old estates, or when you are alone in the woods like this. The echoes quiet, fade away, but they never go completely silent."

Visions of nuclear warfare and secrecy, suspense and spy-vs-spy with international ramifications run through the mind. Not so, not so. Not about to give away the ending, but it feels halfway between a crisp nerves-on-edge and a damp squib. Ends a bit abruptly after all the tension-filled twists and turns the story takes... Leaves one expecting and wanting something more, something that is lacking, but one cannot put a finger on it.

But go get this popcorn read for your next holiday trip. It won't let you down. For the most part.

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