Who Will Be Crime Fiction's Next Star?
NEW YORK TIMES
THE NEW YORK TIMES
AUG. 14, 2005
By NAOMI RAND
OH, please let it be me. Honest, that's what I think when I contemplate who will be the next Harlan Coben, that gold standard of Garden State crime and mystery writers.
After all, what writer wouldn't want to be Mr. Coben? His suburban thrillers routinely top the best-seller lists. And Mr. Coben, who lives in Ridgewood, has won about every award the mystery community bestows. This summer in France, they're filming his breakout book, "Tell No One" (Delacorte Press, 2001), with an all-star cast.
So, how has he gotten there? By featuring "people who are going out and trying to do their best," he said in a phone interview. "The more specifically suburban I am, the more it relates to people in Iceland, or China or Russia." Not to mention England and France.
But Mr. Coben was hardly an overnight sensation. He slogged away on the mystery-writing circuit for years, writing seven mysteries featuring Myron Bolitar, a New Jersey sports agent and sleuth. He did what all we mystery and crime writers do: toured on his own dime, went to all the mystery conventions, sat on panels, met the fans, cultivated the booksellers. In other words, he worked the room. Was it getting out there that made the difference?
"Whenever a book breaks out, it's something about the book that resonates and carries it on," he said. So much for that repartee I've been cultivating for my next mystery panel.
But what about New Jersey as a key ingredient in his success? Who else writes Jersey like Mr. Coben?
Well, Wallace Stroby for one. His series features Harry Rane, a former state trooper armed with a weapon and a conscience. Mr. Stroby grew up in Long Branch. As for Rane, his turf is the Jersey Shore. But don't expect the gingerbread Victoriana of Cape May in his latest novel, "The Heartbreak Lounge" (St. Martin's Minotaur). "I wanted to write about what goes on when the summer people leave down those streets nobody ever looks down," Mr. Stroby said. "Coben writes about a different New Jersey." One that's a short drive, and light-years, away.
Meanwhile, in Paterson, Andy Carpenter, David Rosenfelt's sharp-talking protagonist, is working his magic. Not surprisingly, Mr. Rosenfelt was raised in the same town. "People who grew up in Paterson have this reverence for it," Mr. Rosenfelt said. "It was this fantastic place."
While Mr. Stroby's vision is dark, Mr. Rosenfelt's is lighter. His main character muses about making the N.F.L., and his on-again, off-again love life. Although Mr. Rosenfelt writes Jersey, he is now a West Coast transplant. But he proves he is still one of us in his newest, "Sudden Death" (Mysterious Press). Touching down at the Los Angeles airport, Andy tells us that he certainly hasn't had any preconceived notions about the place, "other than the fact that the people here are insincere, draft-dodging, drug-taking, money-grubbing, breast-implanting, out-of-touch, pate-eating, pompous, Lakers-loving, let's-do-lunching," among other things. "But here I am, open-minded as always," he adds. Now if that isn't a New Jersey attitude, what is?
Speaking of attitude, there's plenty in Norman Green's books. Mr. Green, who lives in Emerson, writes non-series novels. In the first of his three novels, "Shooting Dr. Jack" (HarperCollins, 2001), Mr. Green's hero, Stoney, has more than enough time to ponder life's complexities as he commutes from Bergen County to Brooklyn.
"I worked in one of the worst parts of Brooklyn," Mr. Green said. "It was that contrast, coming home to place where there are flowers in the backyard, from a place where the streets are paved with crack bottles, the caliber of human tragedy there makes you want to cry. Bergen is like Beverly Hills West and Brooklyn is what it's always been." Stoney, Mr. Green's protagonist, figures out how to bridge that gap with class, and humor, albeit dark.
Darker still is Charlie Stella, who writes crime novels in the Elmore Leonard vein. The newest, "Cheapskates" (Carroll & Graf), focuses on some very unsavory people whose love of money drives them to stupidity and beyond. Mr. Stella has lived in Perth Amboy and Piscataway, and had his own appropriate career as a bookmaker.
So, after all is said (and written), who might pen the next breakout book? All of these writers have the talent, but even more crucial they all have New Jersey. It's the place Mr. Coben calls, "the battleground of the American dream." With his newest, "The Innocent" (Dutton), having recently finished a nice run as a hardcover best seller, you have to believe him.
And, hey, I'm no fool. My newest mystery may be set in Brooklyn, but after that it's all New Jersey, all the time.
(Naomi Rand's third Emma Price mystery, "It's Raining Men" (HarperCollins), has just been published. She lives in Montclair.)
- copyright 2005 - The New York Times