Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Harlan Coben’s work is both popular and highly regarded. It’s about time it found a place in this feature, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Deal Breaker, the first of his Myron Bolitar novels.
Bolitar is a former basketball star whose career ended with a severe knee injury. After he recovered, he went back to college and got a law degree. He now owns New York-based MB SportsReps, where he’s assisted by Esperanza Diaz. As the novel begins, Bolitar has signed on to represent very hot (US) football prospect, Christian Steele. And Steele is about to sign a lucrative contract. The future looks promising for both men until one night, when Bolitar gets a strange call from Steele.
A year and a half earlier, Steele’s then-girlfriend, Kathy Culver, disappeared. A search for her turned up no real leads, and her body was never found. Now, Steele’s received a package addressed to him at Reston University. The package contains a pornographic magazine. In the back of the magazine, among the other ads for telephone sex lines, is a very compromising photograph of Kathy. And Steele says that the handwriting on the envelope is hers. If that’s so, then is Kathy alive? If she’s alive, where is she? Why did she send the magazine? And why hasn’t she been in contact with anyone?
Bolitar has a personal connection with the family, as his former girlfriend is Jessica Culver, Kathy’s older sister. And he wants to help Steele find out the truth about Kathy, so that he can focus on starting his professional career. So, he starts to ask a few questions. Then comes even more motivation. It seems that Otto Burke, who owns the team Bolitar’s negotiating with, has also gotten hold of a copy of the magazine, and is using it to leverage a very bad deal for Steele. If Bolitar caves, he won’t attract any more high-profile clients. So, he decides to find out the truth behind the magazine.
In the meantime, Jessica Culver has come back to New York, to attend her (and Kathy’s) father’s funeral. Adam Culver was murdered in what police say was a botched robbery. But Jessica suspects otherwise. She believes that his murder may have something to do with Kathy’s disappearance, and she wants Bolitar to help her get to the truth.
Together with his friend, Windsor Horne Lockwood III (AKA ‘Win’), Bolitar starts to follow both threads of the mystery. He traces Kathy’s last days and weeks and finds out some disturbing things. He also discovers that Kathy wasn’t always the hardworking, clean-scrubbed ‘perfect girlfriend’ she seemed. So, one possibility is that some darkness in her past came back to haunt her. Another is that she has gone missing deliberately and doesn’t want to be found. There are other possibilities, too. Slowly, Bolitar, Win, Esperanza, and Jessica Culver put the pieces together, and we learn the truth about both cases, and how they tie together.
Bolitar is a sports agent. So, there is an element of what sports agents do in the novel. Readers go ‘behind the scenes’ as Bolitar negotiates for Steele, tries to keep another client from leaving him, helps yet another client, and so on. Of course, he wants to make a living, and the better deal he makes, the more he earns. But at the same time, he cares about his clients’ welfare and doesn’t want to see them taken advantage of by unscrupulous owners and other agents. Readers who do not care for sports will want to know that this isn’t a book about (US) football. That’s just the background.
Another important element in the story is the set of characters in Kathy Culver’s life. As Bolitar finds out more and more about her, we get to know her family members, some of the people she knew at university, and so on. I can say without spoiling the story that the solution to the mystery lies in Kathy’s past and in things that have happened to her. To put it another way, as Bolitar gets to know some of the people in Kathy’s life, he gets different perspectives on her. He also slowly learns that some of these characters are lying or at least not telling everything they know.
This is not a light, easy mystery. There is some violence, not all of it ‘off stage.’ And readers who dislike a lot of profanity will want to know that this novel has more than a sprinkling of salt, so to speak. It’s also worth saying that part of the trail leads to sleazy magazines, telephone sex lines, and pornography photos.
That said, though, this also isn’t a gritty, noir sort of story. There are lighter moments in the story, as Bolitar has a wisecracking sort of wit. At one point, for instance, he’s negotiating with Burke:
‘‘You don’t want to lose money, Myron.’ [Burke]
Myron looked at him. ‘I don’t?’
‘No, you don’t.’
‘Can I jot that down?’
He picked up a pencil and began scribbling. ‘Don’t…want…to…lose…money.’ He grinned at both men. ‘Am I picking up pointers today or what?”
Needless to say, not everyone thinks Bolitar’s funny…
The novel introduces a few characters who become ‘regulars’ as the series goes on. One is Esperanza Diaz. She begins as Bolitar’s assistant/receptionist. But as the series evolves, Bolitar makes her a partner, and she develops as a character. There’s also Win. He’s both wealthy and eccentric, with strong martial arts skills and a habit of being there right when Bolitar needs him the most. Win’s a bit unpredictable, but he’s not a ‘loose cannon,’ and he’s extremely intelligent.
There is a bit of the thriller about the novel. The pacing and timing are consistent with the thriller structure, as is the fact that Bolitar gets himself into danger more than once. And there are some twists in the plot.
Deal Breaker is the story of a disappearance, and the secrets that some people have been keeping about it. It traces the history of a young woman and shows how that history has impacted everyone. And it introduces a sports agent with a talent for finding answers. But what’s your view? Have you read Deal Breaker? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 5 March/Tuesday, 6 March – Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street – Heda Margolius Kovály
Monday, 12 March/Tuesday, 13 March – Solomon vs. Lord – Paul Levine
Monday, 19 March/Tuesday, 20 March – Birth Marks – Sarah Dunant