Mia Geiger

Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine
The author and his agent
Harlan Coben’s alter ego signs athletes, solves murders – and loves his parents.

By Mia Geiger

Harlan Coben is out of breath.

The mystery writer has just run five blocks and is now trying to orient himself to the hoopla that is the New York Is Book Country street fair, a mile-long stretch of book sales and author appearances on Fifth Avenue.

“They were having a bike race, and they stopped traffic right at my car,” the author says, leaning his trim 6-foot-4inch frame slightly forward, huffing and puffing, yet still towering over his bookseller friends. “I came via the Panama Canal over the Andes.”

He catches his breath as a throng of people passes by in both directions, cups of coffee in hand, tote bags dangling from their arms. “Where can we start lining up?” Larry Sheaf, here to meet Coben and to buy a few of his books, asks as he peruses the hardbacks and paperbacks at the Mysterious Bookshop booth, across from the glistening Trump Tower.

Coben quickly slides his body into the folding chair behind the booth. Thanks to his last-minute sprint, he has arrived precisely at 11 a.m., the start of his first appearance for fans of his detective series featuring sports agent Myron Bolitar.

Sheaf politely requests an autograph for Coben’s most recent book, Darkest Fear.

“Would you make it ‘To Rich?’ ” the 51-year-old teacher from Lebanon, Pa., asks, explaining that the book is a gift for a friend.

“Is that R-I-C-H, as in Richard?” Coben asks from behind the blackclothed table. “You never know, Jim could be short for gymnasium.”

A chuckle from the reader.

Next up is Bob Whitman, 58, from Boonton Township, N.J., who works in sales. Taking the book, Coben, dressed neatly in a green Tshirt, matching button-down and black jeans, asks, “Your name’s Bob? I’ll spell it backwards.” Ba-da-boom.

Orthopedic surgeon Morton Rubin, 58, and his wife, Sandy, are making their way to the booth. “I wanted to meet you,” the Mechanicsburg, Pa., physician says to Coben. “I like basketball, I like mysteries. I like the relationships between characters.” No puns from the writer this time, but sincere conversation.

Later, the couple bring their son and his friend over to shake Coben’s hand. “You’re in college?” the novelist asks the friend. “Yeah,” the student answers. Then, a slight lull in the conversation, and you can almost hear the wheels in Coben’s head turning as he searches for that perfect quip. “There’s still time to get out,” he finally says, but it falls flat. Still, the group turns away with smiles.

Back at the booth, it’s another reader, another groaner, for nearly four hours. Coben meets, greets, and charms the pants off every reader who steps up.

***
Twenty years ago, in his dorm room at Amherst College, Harlan Coben took one glance at a photo of his soon-to-be roommate and figured they would never get along.

“He’s this good-looking blond guy; he looked arrogant and elitist. I thought, he and I, this Jew from New Jersey, would never be friends,” Coben recalls, a bemused look in his eyes as he relaxes in a wrought iron patio chair alongside his 1870s Victorian house in Ridgewood, N.J. “The first day we met we were best friends and still are to this day. He’s quite warm-hearted, totally different from what he appears to be.”

That friendship spurred a set of characters in a series of mystery novels that are earning Coben a growing cadre of fans.

The books feature wisecracking yet vulnerable New York sports agent Myron Bolitar, who reluctantly gets pulled into solving crimes; his friend, Windsor Lockwood 3d, a pretty-boy blueblood from the Main Line who is quick to practice his dangerous moves on bad guys; and Esperanza Diaz, his knockout business partner. Lockwood, of course, is
based on the college roommate, James Biddle Bradbeer Jr.

It was Bradbeer who took Coben to lunch at the Merion Golf Club, which shows up as the setting for Back Spin, the fourth of seven books in the Bolitar series, its kidnapping and murder set in Philadelphia and part of suburbia “where mommy is pronounced mummy and summer  and winter are verbs.”

While Coben has yet to become a household name, the characters have brought him accolades, including the most prestigious prize in mystery writing, an Edgar Award in 1997 for Fade Away as the best paperback original.

His next book, Tell No One, a thriller that breaks from the Bolitar series, is due out next year and was scooped up in a movie-rights bidding war. And for Twentieth Century Fox he’s written a pilot for a TV series featuring Myron.

Henry Reifsnyder, co-owner of the Whodunit mystery bookstore in Center City, says readers eagerly anticipate Coben’s new books. “He’s not quite in the ranks of, say, Robert B. Parker or Lawrence Block, where they are known in the mainstream. But in the mystery field, mystery fans know who he is. He has a following. ”

Bolitar may be a sports agent – negotiating contracts and endorsement deals for pro athletes – but not much sports action happens in the novels. In fact, Coben doesn’t even like sports. But, he says, “It’s a ripe arena for emotion, for friendship, for loss, for racism or sexism, and for murder. ”

Bolitar is a wisenheimer. “He gets to say the kinds of things I think about later, the comebacks I wish I had come back with,” Coben says. The sports agent/sleuth drinks Yoo-Hoo, loves Batman, and quotes Oscar and Felix from The Odd Couple. He’s a walking encyclopedia of ’70s and
’80s pop-culture trivia.

“It’s amazing how everyone remembers Quisp [cereal],” Coben says. “Overseas, they don’t get a lot of the references. One e-mail from Bulgaria asked, ‘What does it mean when Myron rolls down the car window and says, ‘Care to have any Grey Poupon?’ ”

***
After college, Coben had an eight-year stint at the family’s North Jersey travel business, but quit to write full time.

Now he’s 38, a stay-at-home dad with seven, almost eight, books and
three children, from almost 2 to 6 in age. He writes daily and
alternates child-care duties with his wife of 12 years, Anne
Armstrong-Cohen, a pediatrician.

Coben typically writes at Starbucks or, for total silence, the local public library. At home, he retreats to his own library, sitting at the thick wood desk adorned with a black Maltese falcon statue and surrounded by shelves stocked with works of mystery authors who have become friends: Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, Lisa Scottoline, Susan Isaacs, Mary Higgins Clark, Lawrence Block.

The dialogue he creates for the two main characters in the Bolitar series is familiar to former roommate Jim Bradbeer.

“Everything he writes is syncopated; it’s yadda-yadda-yadda, chop-chop, and that’s just us,” he says. “It’s our banter. It was our latenight-in-front-of-the-TV schtick. I just read his book, and I go right back into our dorm room. ”

So how autobiographical are Coben’s books? Bolitar is a former basketball superstar whose career is cut short by a knee injury; Coben played Division III basketball at Amherst, where he studied political science.

“I did try to make him me with better qualities. He’s a better friend, he’s braver. I do have him beat in two areas: One, I’m a better dancer – I won’t demonstrate – and, two, I’m wiser in the ways of women, which is not saying much.”

Something else links Coben and Bolitar. Unlike most mystery books, the protagonist in the series has a close relationship with his parents, much like Coben experienced. But Coben’s parents are deceased; his mother died at age 62, his father at 59.

“People have often written [me] that you’re really dealing with this issue of Myron’s parents’ aging exactly how I feel, you must be going through it,” he says. “Actually it’s the opposite. I unfortunately never got to go through it.

“Myron and I have a tension that I really enjoy playing with, and that is that I have something that Myron desperately wants and Myron has something that I desperately want. Myron’s parents are still alive, and he has that relationship with his parents where he goes up to their house and still sees them, and I’m jealous of that. And Myron always wants to have the house in the burbs and the kids, which I have, which I can never give him, of course – you can’t make him totally happy – so that tension really helps me when I’m writing the book.”

Sometimes the author finds it difficult writing scenes involving Myron Bolitar’s parents. Other times the experience makes him smile. “When my parents passed away, I looked at pictures all the time and it was painful, but I did it anyway because it was also comforting.

There’s a fme line between being comforted and inflicting harm on yourself. I also look at the books as – it sounds corny – but as monuments to my parents. This is my way of immortalizing them and my relationship with them and what wonderful parents they were.”

***
Coben is looking a little tired, a little preoccupied. The night before he had dined in Manhattan with his Hollywood agent, Joel Gotler of Artist Management Group, to finalize details of a seven-figure movie deal based on Tell No One, the forthcoming non-Myron thriller.

“It was a total unreal feeling,” he says of first getting the movie news. “I just went -.” His jaw drops. “This is what every writer ever dreams happens. ”

In a bidding war, Studio Canal, the French company that co-produced John Travolta’s Lucky Numbers. beat out Columbia/Sony, Warner Bros. And Fox for the rights. The movie could be out next year.

The setup: A young couple, madly in love, get married; soon, the woman is murdered. As the book opens, eight years have passed, and the man gets an e-mail telling him to click on a hyperlink. The link shows a camera focused on a street. As he takes a look, she walks by.

“I had this wonderful idea, and it wouldn’t work for Myron, and then a guy named David Beck tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Create me,’ ” Coben says of his new protagonist.

As for the TV series pilot, Twentieth Century Fox will shop it to the networks later this year. But, like many projects in Hollywood, “it’s all very iffy,” Coben says.

Meanwhile, he’s at work on another suspense novel, again minus Myron Bolitar.

***

Harlan Coben has just wrapped up his third book-signing when a familiar face spots him walking by.

“Harlan Coben! My favorite human being alive,” gushes best-selling author Mary Higgins Clark, surprised to see her colleague at the New York book fair.

“Mary Higgins Clark! My favorite person in the whole world!” Coben says warmly, bending down to kiss his friend’s cheek. Before the two have a chance to schmooze, a reader approaches Clark, seated next to her daughter, also a mystery writer, at the Poe’s Cousin bookstore booth.

“I’m Mary Higgins Clark,” the author says sweetly, introducing herself to the fan. “I’m Carol Higgins Clark,” her daughter says, equally pleasant. With perfect timing, Coben, who has pulled up a chair, pipes in: “Hi. I’m Harlan Higgins Clark, I’m the adopted son.”

Ba-da-boom.

Mia Geiger is a freelance writer in the Philadelphia area.

 

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