A few posts ago I said I was going to read six books straight through for pleasure, and then cycle back and analyze the ones with plot features I admire. Book number two on my list was Harlan Coben’s Gone For Good, 2003. Donald Maass had good things to say about this title in his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. He said it takes a mystery cliche – a detective haunted by the murder of his wife or girlfriend – and turns it inside out by layering the plot and adding twists and turns. I cannot recall a thriller with more surprising twists packed into its pages.
Will Klein’s mother tells him a few days before her death that his beloved older brother Ken is still alive. Ken disappeared eleven years earlier, wanted for the murder of Will’s former girlfriend. The family believes Ken is innocent but assumes he is dead – could he really be alive and in hiding? The day after his mother’s funeral, Will’s girlfriend, Sheila disappears. The next day at work, two FBI agents ask for Sheila’s whereabouts, and inform Will that her fingerprints were found at the scene of a double homicide in New Mexico. Meanwhile we meet two former classmate’s of Will’s older brother, one a gangster and one a sociopathic master-assassain known as “The Ghost,” and both have a keen interest in Will.
Got all that? You need to, since this is just the basic setup of Gone For Good. When Will sets out with his friend, Squares, to try to discover what is really going on, Squares warns him he may not like the answers. “The ugliest truth, in the end, was still better than the prettiest of lies,” Will says, a sentiment that will be tested as the story progresses.
Perhaps the greatest take-away for me as a writer is the way questions can keep us turning pages as effectively as tension. From the initial, “What’s going on?”, “Is my brother alive?”, “Where is my girlfriend?” mysteries, Will must face issues that cut deeper and deeper into the basic assumptions of his life and the people he loves.
This is not a perfect book. During the second half, I found my attention wandering. In part, the plot twists were coming with such frequency they felt expected and lost a little of their power to shock. So I think when I review Gone For Good in greater detail, I am going to discover that for a large section of Act II, the stakes and the pacing of the revelations stayed somewhat constant.
Also, the most menacing character, The Ghost, was not fleshed out until the end of the book. It is hard to write a convincing, three-dimensional, psychopathic killer. It is the humanizing details that make them come alive. Hannibal Lektor valued good manners and hated rude people. The killer in No Country for Old Men had certain personal values – keeping his promises, for one. Such quirks make them more believable than an apparently flawless killing machine. The Ghost, we learn at the end of the book, is driven by a complex and unexpected sense of loyalty and fair play, but I think we would have found him more “real” and more frightening if we had known some of the details earlier.
As I now understand it, the whole point of this exercise – reading and then rereading six books to try to look under the hood – is to look deeply into what works in six unique approaches. Having just finished a complex novel like this, I have several other opinions and hunches but I need to review them further.
I was reminded though, of the very first post I made on this blog at the end of last June. I quoted Neil Gaiman’s comment as editor of Stories, that the measure of a storyteller’s success are the four words we all want to hear – “And then what happened?” By that measure, Harlan Coben deserves the acclaim Gone For Good has won.