Another great one
from thrill-master Harlan Coben

''Just One Look''
By Harlan Coben
(Dutton, 374 pages, $25.95)

Buy at Amazon

Reviewed by John Orr
April 2004

Harlan Coben seemed to be on a downward slide. His "Tell No One'' was excellent, one of the best mysteries of 2001, but then his next book, "Gone for Good'' wasn't quite as brilliant, and the one after that, "No Second Chance,'' was merely good.

But his latest, "Just One Look,'' reverses that slide completely and puts him back near the top of the mystery thriller pyramid.

It has a story that ends up being enormously complicated, but is so well written and such a compelling read that the complexities don't slow anything down; they're just part of the mystery. It's only when page 374 turns that the reader has a chance to breathe, say "Wow!'' and marvel at the impressively interconnected structure.

Grace Lawson, a painter and mother, picks up some photographs at Photomat. Most of the snapshots, taken by her loving husband Jack, are of their children, Emma and Max, on an apple-picking outing. But one photograph stands out. It is older, on the wrong kind of paper. And Grace doesn't recognize anybody in the image, until she suddenly realizes that one of the "strangers'' is Jack, many years before, when he was about college age.

Later that night, after Jack gets the children ready for bed, the perfect, loving dad, she shows him the odd photograph. No, that's not him, he says. No, he doesn't know who the other people are, how could he?

Grace gets ready for bed when Jack gets a phone call. A little later, she hears his minivan drive off, and when she looks in the pile of snapshots again, the mystery photo is missing.

That's a small part of just the beginning. By the time we're about 40 pages in, we've also met a hired assassin who wants to confess to an old crime, a U.S. attorney, another hired thug with amazing strong fingers who can kill with powerful pokes and grabs, a pathetic man who is captured and tortured, and a huge bear of a strong man who is killed by the man who has, in fact, kidnapped Jack.

And Grace is still wondering what to do about her missing husband, who's only been gone, really, a few hours. But she knows something must be up, because he's simply too good a guy to just drive off, without answering his cell phone, without letting her know.

That's a key feature of Coben novels -- the love of husbands and wives, parents and children. When Grace finally calls the police, a young officer tells her that in most such cases, "the husband is just running around.''

"That's not the case here,'' she tells him. "He nodded. 'And in ninety-nine out of a hundred cases, that's what we hear from the wife.'''

The cop asks her, "Do you understand what I'm telling you?''

"'I think so,''' she says. "'That I'm a hysterical bimbo. My husband ran off. I'm trying to us the police to drag him back. That sound about right?'''

That, of course, sets up an essential plot complication: Why Grace starts off on the wrong foot with the police, and decides to find her husband herself.

Also on Grace's overcrowded agenda is Carl Vespa, a big-deal gangster who was the father of a boy who'd been killed at a riot at a rock show, years before. Grace had been injured in that riot, battered into a coma, but survived with only a limp as an outward sign of injury, and a certain loss of memory. The man charged with causing the riot is up for parole, and Vespa is not happy about it. But he is very fond of Grace, would do almost anything for her.

Eventually, Grace will need his help -- and the help of a few others, including the surprising mother of some kids who go to the same school as Emma and Max:

"Charlaine Swain slipped on her new online lingerie purchase -- a Regal Lace babydoll with matching G-string -- and pulled up her bedroom shade.

"Something was wrong.''

Poor Charlaine had, pathetically, fallen in the habit of titillating her dweeb peeping-tom neighbor. When he doesn't show up at his window one day, she becomes concerned, and sets off a chain of events that end up connecting with what Grace is investigating and lead to Charlaine being a hero.

And along that line of plot -- which has elements of humor, sure, but more thrills and scares than anything else -- Coben has a few more comments to make about marriages and the people in them.

It's a terrific mystery, with Grace having to dig deep into her trusted husband's mysterious past in her effort to find and save him. As the truth comes to Grace, "Just One Look'' opens up -- over many pages -- like an elegantly constructed puzzle box.