No Bolitar? No Thanks.

One of the great recurring characters in modern American mystery writing has to be Myron Bolitar, the sports agency owner who frequently finds himself detecting on the side in murders most foul. He’s smart, he’s funny, and he finds himself in all kinds of messed up situations.

And he has a great back story: college basketball star, blown out with a knee injury, reconfigures his life in law school and beyond. Over the course of several novels, Edgar Award-winning author Harlan Coben has had the chance to flesh out Bolitar as a character so memorable you can Google him.

So when I picked up Coben’s much-anticipated latest book, it was letdown time.

No Myron Bolitar.

Yes, I know writers don’t want to be restricted to just writing about the same person over and over again and there are real frustrations and dangers in that.

But in The Woods it seems we’ve gone from the great name Myron Bolitar to the very standard and bland: Paul Copeland, the county prosecutor of Essex, New Jersey. Fortunately, it turns out Copeland is the Anglicized version of Copinsky and there’s a whole Russian Gothic background to his family’s troubles.

Years ago, Paul’s sister disappeared after being murdered (along with three other campers) by a serial killer while both she and Paul were at teen camp. Paul’s sort of at fault for not watching after her better. Their dad spent years digging up the woods looking for his daughter’s never-recovered body but died before he ever found her. Paul’s mother ditched Paul and his father after the camp incident. Now Paul is the single father of a six-year-old daughter after his wife died of cancer five years before and he’s trying to fight the good fight but he may lose everything because his past has come back to haunt him.

It’s not a bad story at all. It seems to lack some of the humor in the Bolitar tales, but it moves along and if you can kind of see the ending coming, it’s not totally unsatisfying how it gets there. I enjoyed it more than any mystery I’ve read recently; it’s more than engaging enough to keep you turning pages.

But if you’re new to Harlan Coben, pick up one of his Bolitar books. Start with Deal Breaker, his first and go on from there through his most recent The Promise. And as non-Bolitar efforts go, I preferred Coben’s The Innocent. -- Margaret Downing

The Woods, Dutton Publishing, $26.95

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