Another week, another American crime writer who captured my attention as a young man and helped me eventually find joy in the niche of classic-era detective fiction.
Fade Away (1996) by Harlan Coben
How I encountered this book
Believe it or not, there was a time when you couldn’t be entirely sure if an author would have an internet presence — I remember the only website containing sensible information about the writer Jeffery Deaver being clearly fan-run despite having what would now be considered the “official” address — so you’d gather round the warmth of like-minded souls where you found them. I found a great many of them on the now-defunct message board on Robert Crais’ official website where, due to said dearth of author websites, much discussion was had about other contemporary and classic crime writers.
In early 2001, the American contingent of that board began to get very excited about an upcoming novel called Tell No-One (2001) by Harlan Coben, an author who, wonder of wonders, was not available in the UK at that time despite having already published seven well-received novels in his Myron Bolitar series. Tell No-One was his first standalone, and big things were expected of it. I remember seizing it when it was eventually published in the UK, and having my mind blown by the complexities layered throughout the plot, and it was just a question of waiting for Coben’s earlier books to get a UK deal on the back of TNO’s popularity. Eventually, the first four Bolitar novels — Deal Breaker (1995), Drop Shot (1996), Fade Away (1996), and Back Spin (1997) — followed and I couldn’t snap them up fast enough. And I loved them so much that, when there was a delay before the final three Bolitar novels were published in the UK, I actually asked a friend in the US to send me those books so I could read on without having to wait too long.
What’s it about?
Myron Bolitar was earmarked for basketball greatness when a freak injury ended his career before he’d even started his first season in the NBA. Ten years on, having remade himself as a sports agent via some time spent working for the FBI, he is approached by the team who had signed him and offered the opportunity to finally play professional basketball…as a cover for an investigation into the sudden vanishing of the team’s star player, Greg Downing.
Downing, though, has disappeared before, and is prone to unusual behaviour, such as driving a cab in New York City the night after any game…
Myron tried again. “When you say Greg is missing–“
“Gone,” Clip snapped. “Disappeared. Into thin air. Without a trace. Whatever you want to call it.”
“Have you called the police?”
Clip gave him the wave-off again. “You know Greg. He’s not a conventional guy.”
The understatement of the millennium.
…so initially Myron and his partner Windsor Horne Lockwood III are a little confused as to the sudden concern for his well-being…until they discover a bloody scene in the playroom in the basement of Greg’s mansion that implies something might be seriously wrong after all. And when the press start to question the official story of Greg being in isolation to recuperate after an injury, the pressure is on to discover what has happened before the real story breaks. Because the real story looks like it might be a dark one.
Any seeds of detection?
Yes. Coben’s books featuring Myron and Win generally see the two operating as roaming private detectives, running into cops, gangsters, corrupt officials, and personal secrets along the way. This starts out with a good seed of detection in that bloody scene in Greg’s basement not really conforming to any logical sequence of events, and confounding each attempt to apply reason to the physical evidence in front of them:
“Think it through, Myron. If Greg were murdered, for example, where is his body? Did the killer or killers take it with them? And what do you think happened here? The killers — what? — surprised Greg? Alone? In his kids’ playroom where, I guess, Greg was playing with his little dolly? Then what happened? They killed him down there and dragged him out of the house without leaving traces of blood anywhere but in the basement?” Clip spread his hands. “Does that make sense?”
Plus, with Myron drafted onto the team because the players are likely to close ranks if an outsider starts asking questions, there’s the small matter of Myron not just being able to walk up to these professional athletes and start quizzing them about a possible murder. This latter point echoes the presence of the Great Detective in many a puzzle plot — often a house guest, or on the scene in some other capacity — whose presence is neither that of an insider who is free to question without opposition nor yet that of a total outsider who has no right to intrude upon whatever disaster has befallen the denizens of the plot.
There’s also good detection, albeit often provided by that 90’s shortcut of A Contact At The Phone Company, in the efforts to track down a particular location from which a call was made, and then the person who was present at the right time to make the call in the first place. And, on this aspect of the plot, Coben is wise to the fact that sometimes Myron’s methods aren’t always the most edifying, and that while you might need to strong-arm or mislead people to get the information you require, that doesn’t necessarily mean your methods are justified.
Myron felt like a louse. What did you do today, Batman? Well, Robin, I started off by terrorizing a hardworking immigrant’s livelihood with a bunch of lies. Holy Cow, Batman, you’re the coolest! Myron shook his head. What to do for an encore – throw empty beer bottles at the dog on the fire escape?
It’s a shame, then, that this comes together in the end because of two sudden moments of inspiration that aren’t really within the reader’s grasp: one concerning the realisation that someone could have had plastic surgery and, if you just rearrange their features a bit, they could be a key name in the skein, and the second being a loose interpretation of a numerical clue which could in all honesty be nothing at all. Good groundwork is done in progressing the investigation elsewhere, although that confounding bloody crime scene ends up being something of a dud, and it would have been lovely if a little more hung around in plain sight for the reader to latch onto. Still, you can niggle all you want — how did the MacGuffin that everyone is chasing even come into existence? — this is, for its era, a remarkably layered piece of plotting that, while it might throw over some of the characters and ideas to enable a couple of Big Surprises, boded well for the complexities in Coben’s future.
Can you go home?
While the plot of this doesn’t quite hold together, I cannot deny that I was entranced upon first reading by Coben’s juggling of apparently unconnected threads and that this largely stands up twenty years later. The essence of puzzle plotting is in giving a complex, overlayed pattern of apparently meaningless or unconnected events some simple meaning that draws them all into a coherent, and hopefully essentially simple, design, and you can see Coben working hard to establish this — and once you know the MacGuffin, it all (sort of, just about) makes sense. In that regard, given my increased fascination with complex plot design down the years, I thoroughly enjoyed this return.
On top of that, something I loved, which doubtless sailed over my head first time around because I was pretty ignorant 20 years ago about the NBA and just generally what being a professional sportsman entailed, I loved the parts of this where Coben reflects on the life of the professional athlete. Not only does he write a brilliant sequence in which Myron, although clearly out of his depth in the NBA, relives the excitement and zen-like state of having worked your arse off to be at the top of your field…
[F]or those brief seconds when Myron caught the ball, when his fingertips found the groove, when he bent his elbow and cradled the ball half an inch above both palm and forehead, when the arm smoothed into a straight line, when the wrist flowed into a front curl, when the fingertips danced along the ball’s surface and created the ideal backspin, Myron was alone. His eyes were focused on the rim, only the rim, never glancing at the ball as it arched its way toward the cylinder. For those few seconds there was only Myron and the rim and the basketball and it all felt very right.
…he also, through the character of the Dennis Rodman-alike Terry ‘TC’ Collins, captures the sense of the athlete’s own personal worth, the bittersweet understanding that people only care because you’re good and when you stop being good they’ll stop caring.
“Look, I ain’t complaining. Don’t get me wrong. This is a whole lot better than pumping gas or working in a coal mine or something. But I always got to remember the truth: the only thing that separates me from any n*gger on the street is a game. That’s it. A knee going pop, like with what happened to you, and I’m back down there. I always remember that. Always.”
If I want to level any complaints I’d say that there’s not nearly enough of the amoral, hyperviolent Win in this one, although Coben may have been trying to lessen Win’s overall impact given that the character’s psychotic viewpoint on life makes him an almost impressively unsympathetic presence at times. And it is not possible to hiss the phrase “Get out”…but, meh, no-one else really cares about that except me, or else it wouldn’t keep turning up in various forms in various books down the years. Overall I enjoyed this, and the MacGuffin still hits hard when it comes and makes sense of earlier events in the way of the best revelations. I may not quite have the same reverence for Coben’s work that I did upon first encounter, but this undoubtedly had an effect on Young Jim in helping him realise the sorts of stories he wanted to read. And for that I’m very grateful.
Going Home on The Invisible Event: