Who is Harlan Coben?

By BBC Maestro

One name that shines brightly in the realm of thriller and mystery fiction is Harlan Coben. 

With an impressive repertoire of novels, television series adaptations, and a dedicated fan base, he’s established himself as quite the titan of the genre.

But who exactly is Harlan Coben, and what sets him apart from other authors? Let’s take a look.

His background: What inspired Harlan Coben to become a writer?

I always loved books. I always loved story.

Harlan Coben

Born and bred in the suburbs of New Jersey, Harlan developed a passion for writing at a young age. 

He attended Amherst College, where he studied political science. It was in his senior year at college that he got the bug for writing – following a stint working as a travel agent in Spain over the summer. 

“I actually wrote an entire novel about this really cool tour guide and his really weird clients, and the novel was terrible. It was pretentious and pompous, and all the things that a first novel often is. But from that, I got the writing bug. It’s almost like a virus.”

What is Harlan Coben’s writing style like?

Known for suspenseful thrillers, you’ll recognise a Harlan Coben novel by its sanitised suburban backdrops, relentlessly gripping storylines, and crafty plot twists.

“I started to write the novels that I love. We’re going to call them thriller or crime fiction or whatever here. But I call it the novel of immersion,” he tells viewers in his BBC Maestro writing course. “I want my book, and I want your book, to be the book you take on vacation, but you don’t want to leave your hotel room. You have to know what happened to Bob and Sue and the rest of these people. It becomes that important. You just disappear into it.”

His works have earned him numerous literary awards, including the Edgar Award, Shamus Award, and Anthony Award. In fact, he’s the first author to have been crowned winner of all three. 

How many books has Harlan Coben written?

To date, Harlan has penned 36 novels – with over 80 million books in print worldwide. His works have been translated into 46 languages, 10 of which have sat in first place on the New York Times bestseller list for ten consecutive years, and many have been adapted into films or TV series by Netflix and Amazon Prime. 

Harlan Coben sat in a cosy room with all his books stacked next to him.

Harlan Coben’s books

Let’s look at some of the compelling plots of some of Harlan’s most-loved works.

Fool Me Once

Former special ops pilot Maya Burkett (played by British actor Michelle Keegan) becomes embroiled in paranoia after spotting her deceased husband on her nanny cam. It sends her on a journey filled with secrets, deception, and unexpected twists. It’s the latest Harlan Coben TV adaptation to hit the mainstream, with its first episode airing in January 2024.

Harlan Coben’s Shelter

This is the first book in Harlan Coben’s young adult series featuring Mickey Bolitar. The story follows the life of a high school student whose life is turned upside down after his father dies in a car accident and his mother is admitted to rehab, so he moves in with his estranged uncle. 

Mickey becomes invested in the disappearance of his classmate Ashley and embarks on a journey of dark secrets and mystery. It’s another of Harlan’s stories adapted for TV, so if you want to know where to watch Harlan Coben’s Shelter, Amazon Prime aired it in 2023. 

Missing You

Written in 2014, and soon to join Netflix screens as Harlan’s ninth adaptation for the streaming platform, Missing You follows the story of Detective Kat Donovan – as she delves into the mysterious disappearance of her former lover, Jeff. 

While the case unravels, she uncovers shocking truths about Jeff’s past and a connection to a string of unsolved murders. Kat’s investigation leads her into a dangerous web of deceit, betrayal, and long-held secrets. With each revelation, she finds herself confronting her own demons while racing against time to find Jeff and bring a killer to justice.

Don’t Let Go

Published in 2017, this novel is set in the suburbs of New Jersey. It follows the story of Detective Napoleon (known as ‘Nap’) Dumas, who has been troubled since high school following the mysterious death of his twin brother Leo and Leo’s girlfriend, Diana. At the same time, his girlfriend Maura ended their relationship and vanished. 

Fifteen years later, Maura’s fingerprints surface in a murder case, sparking Nap’s unyielding pursuit of truth and unveiling shocking revelations about his past. 

The Stranger 

This story features a dad, Adam Price, who discovers a devastating secret about his wife when confronted by a stranger. The revelation sends him on a relentless quest to uncover the truth, and unexpected consequences find him along the way. Since it hit the shelves in 2015, it’s been adapted into a British television series by Netflix starring Richard Armitage, with Harlan as executive producer. 

When we were doing the TV series The Stranger, I wanted to start with something very strange involving teens and involving an animal. And I said to the people in the room I want you to come up with the most messed up idea you can think of. 

Harlan Coben

Tell No one

At the beginning of Tell No One, Dr David Beck and his wife, Elizabeth, celebrate their anniversary. Tragedy arrives shortly after when Elizabeth is abducted and murdered, and Dr Beck embarks on the struggle of life without her.

Years after, Dr Beck receives a cryptic message suggesting Elizabeth may still be alive, which sets him on a perilous journey to uncover long-buried secrets. The story earned Coben the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.

The Boy from the Woods

Three decades ago, Wilde was discovered as a feral boy in the woods, devoid of any recollection of his origins. When a child, Naomi Pine, who’s persistently bullied, goes missing, a television criminal attorney, Hester Crimstein, asks Wilde to help find her. 

Determined to help the outcast, Wilde delves into a community where he’s always been an outsider, facing influential figures concealing dangerous secrets that could devastate many lives.

Stay Close

Harlan Coben’s Stay Close follows the lives of three characters – Megan, a devoted mother balancing work and family; Ray, a once-promising photographer who now lives a mundane life; and Broome, a persistent detective entangled in an unsolved missing person case.

Megan is reconnected with someone from her past who shares some shocking news that brings together the three characters’ paths. It’s a story that has readers clinging right to the last page.  “Some endings, and most endings, are happy,” he says in his BBC Maestro course. “Other endings are not. But they have to be satisfying. Sometimes the darkest ending is the most satisfying.”

The novel was adapted into a Netflix series in 2021, with Harlan acting as executive producer. 

Whether you’re a reader or TV drama enthusiast drawn to Harlan’s storytelling prowess or an aspiring writer looking to write your own thriller, there’s something to take from each of his stories. 

If you want to learn more about crafting your own compelling thrillers – from conceiving your idea and character development to sewing suspense into the seams of your plot, take a look at Harlan Coben’s BBC Maestro course

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From bestselling author, Harlan Coben