The Final Detail

by Harlan Coben

Published by Delacorte Press

320 pages, 1999

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Coben Hits a Homer

Reviewed by Frederick Zackel


John Steinbeck once wrote, "It's a long slow process for a human to die. We kill a cow, and it is dead as soon as the meat is eaten, but a man's life dies as a commotion in a still pool dies, in little waves, spreading and growing back toward stillness."

In Harlan Coben's newest novel, The Final Detail, his series character, basketball star-turned-sports agent Myron Bolitar, discovers that life is about ripples. The widow of this book's murder victim tells him that early on, but Myron needs to learn the hard way what those words really mean.

The Final Detail begins with Myron in seclusion on St. Bacchanals, a small Caribbean island. He has fled his career and his life; he could not cope with the emotional disaster that swamped him at the end of his previous adventure, in One False Move (1998). What happened there was so overwhelming that Myron was "damaged goods." Overwhelmed with sorrow and grief, he "had told no one where he was going or for how long -- mostly because he didn't have a clue himself."

Myron has been on St. Bacchanals for three weeks in the company of a curvaceous and blonde prime-time CNN anchorwoman. ("Their relationship had been about forgetting and surviving: two desperate souls standing in the rubble with no interest in trying to rebuild a damn thing.") He thinks no one knows his whereabouts. But then along comes Windsor ("Win") Horne Lockwood III, Bolitar's preppy alter ego, with news that cannot wait for Myron's conscience to clear. Win is not only "one of the country's richest playboys," but also "a blue-blooded, aristocratic sociopath." More importantly, Win is Myron's closest friend. He owns and operates Lock-Horne Securities and Investments on New York's Park Avenue. Like Myron, Win too often has irksome duties to perform that cannot bear public scrutiny: "calling in political favors, preparing a lawsuit against the Bergen County D.A.'s office for libel and slander, planting positive spins in the media, seeing which judges will be running for reelection." To Myron, these actions all boil down to "who can you pay off."

The news Win brings to the recovering Myron is that Esperanza Diaz, Myron's partner in MB SportsReps, a Manhattan-based sports agency, has been arrested for murder. She's supposed to have killed New York Yankees pitcher Clu Haid, one of Myron's clients. Myron and Haid were fraternity brothers years before at Duke University. It was also at Duke that Haid met his future wife Bonnie and became Myron's very first client.

As a client, Haid was a "lovable screw-up," who Myron had often gotten out of trouble ("drug suspensions, drunk-driving charges, whatever"). In the "twilight of his career," the Yankees had given Haid one last chance to get his life together, and it had been working -- until he flunked a surprise drug test for heroin.

Following that failure, Clu Haid was seen arguing with Esperanza outside Myron's office. Then he was seen striking her. The baseballer turned up dead shortly thereafter, and the murder weapon was found in Myron's office. Haid's bloodstains were discovered in the trunk of a MB SportsReps company car. More evidence that Esperanza killed Haid surfaces, of course. Some of it suggests that Myron's partner was having an affair with the dead man. To further complicate this mystery, there's $200,000 of Haid's money missing from his account -- an account managed by Win Lockwood, his financial advisor.

Wanting to help Esperanza Diaz, Myron rushes back to Manhattan -- only to find that his partner intends to keep him at arm's length. She won't even see him. Puzzled and refusing to stay out of the way, Myron decides to investigate Esperanza's personal life, hoping to turn up something there that will serve to clear her name.

He's assisted in this latest pursuit of justice by Big Cyndi, his agency's receptionist. Big Cyndi is also an ex-wrestler, and Esperanza's former tag-team partner. "Big Cyndi," author Coben writes, "had worked for years as a bouncer at an S&M bar; when the situation called for it, she could be as nasty as a rabid rhino with a bad case of piles." Her toughness is useful and her support essential as Myron's investigation leads him to probe changes in the lives of Clu Haid and his old drinking buddy Billy Lee Palms; consider a surfeit of moral questions surrounding his own job; and look into the long-ago disappearance of a teenage girl.

The teenager in question is Lucy Mayor, daughter of Yankees owner Sophie Mayor, who vanished years ago. Myron becomes interested in her after he discovers a computer disk in some of his unopened mail. When he loads the disk into his computer, a self-starting program brings up a photo of Lucy. But then the face begins "to melt." He watches, horrified, as "the girl's hair flips fell and blended into her flesh, her forehead sloped down, her nose dissolved, her eyes rolled back and then closed. Blood began to run down from the eye sockets, coating the face in crimson." Blood soon blankets the screen. Then the disk erases itself.

Why, Myron wonders, would he receive such a disk? Sophie Mayor tells him, "Somebody is reaching out to you specifically," asking that Myron look more closely into her daughter Lucy's fate. And he's willing to follow that lead, especially when he realizes that the annoyingly self-righteous Yankees owner knows more than she is telling -- perhaps information that will help Esperanza Diaz regain her freedom.

But as Myron learns the answers to this story's multiple questions, and as he realizes eventually that the case hinges on revenge motives and actually points to him as the most likely suspect in Clu Haid's death, the sports agent wonders whether he wouldn't "have been better off staying forever in the dark."

Coben, past winner of both the Edgar Allan Poe and Shamus awards, plays fair with the reader. All the clues to his literary puzzle are here, yet it's unlikely that any reader will guess the solution. The author's use of witty, fast-paced dialogue helps make this novel a page-turner. His descriptions are terse and pointed and effective.

However, it's Myron Bolitar who makes the story unique.

A clever detective, handy with a wisecrack as well as a gun, Myron is at heart more Everyman than Philip Marlowe. And he's in no way a static figure. Author Coben loves putting Myron on the hot seat and then ratcheting up the heat. From one book to another, Myron is forced to grow up, to face what he has done and what he has become, and the reader is the winner.

Much of Myron's self-reflection in The Final Detail concerns his profession. Above all, he observes, a sports agent "looks after his clients." He is a go-between; he must negotiate, he must compromise. He also coddles and protects the pro athletes he represents. When clients screw up -- because of substance abuse, drunk driving, or some other "victimless crime" -- the agent is there to bail them out, brush them off, and send them back to the locker room in time for practice. Sometimes, Myron knows, this involves cover-ups and payoffs. ("Dollars changed hands.... Donations, they called it with a chuckle.") No one wants to destroy a promising sports career. Myron's professional life is dotted with these moral and ethical qualifiers. As he notes, "being a sports agent was a legit way of making a living, sort of."

Some athletes manage to "smarten up" from their experiences and exorcise their demons, while a few seem destined to be "perpetual screw-ups" or "scum." A few will never be able to live with themselves, and instead take the coward's way out. Myron has been bailing Clu Haid out for years. But it's only after the pitcher is killed that his agent starts to wonder if that was such a good idea. Haid's widow Bonnie tells Myron that maybe "we all did him a disservice. Maybe if we weren't always there to save him, he would have had a chance to change. Maybe if I had dumped him years ago, he could have straightened himself out and survived all this." Who Clu Haid had become -- with Myron's unwitting assistance -- is the linchpin to this book's mystery.

Such moral scrutiny is new to the detective genre. That bending the rules should become easier and easier would be a natural evolution for any series character. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, became more xenophobic and class-conscious with each new story. The acts of Bulldog Drummond and Mike Hammer, Spenser and Hawk should have led them all to do serious time behind bars. Yet they inevitably get away with their actions... and believe they always will.

Coben, on the other hand, fights the natural tendency for moral laziness in his characters. Guilt comes in degrees, he seems to say, and Myron Bolitar must be left to analyze what is fair and what is foul. If the mythological private eye prowls the borderland between good and evil, with frequent steps on either side of that border, then what Coben is giving us is the foul line between good and evil. Myron explains:

The line between good and evil is not so different from the foul line on a baseball field. It's often made of stuff as flimsy as lime. It tends to fade over time. It needs to be constantly redrawn. And if enough players trample on it, the line becomes smeared and blurred to the point where fair is foul and foul is fair, where good and evil become indistinguishable from each other.

As a successful sports agent, Myron has straddled that line often enough that at times he doesn't know where he is standing. He's no moral paragon. He lies easily, for one thing. He would let a murderer skate free if that meant Esperanza went free. And if she were Clu Haid's killer, then Myron would probably let her skate, too.

Does all of this make Myron Bolitar a difficult character to like, a lone-wolf outsider who you'd want to have around in times of trouble, but not otherwise? Hardly. He has family. He still kisses his father whenever they meet, which is a nice Old World touch in a postmodern nightmare. His mother's version of a home-cooked meal is Chinese takeout, which somehow makes her seem more motherly. Myron has only loved -- slept with -- four women in his life. Yet he carries more torches than an Olympic organizer. The reader comes to care about Myron because he still has a good heart. No matter what he does in his job.

If Myron is appealing, so is Win -- in many ways, the essential opposite side of his moral coin. To Myron, Win is "a cold dose of reality," while Win seems to view Myron "as his humanity." As Esperanza tells Myron at one point, "Maybe you two are more alike than either of you wants to believe." Accepting the consequences of his choices may mean Myron Bolitar will be living with guilt for a long time. How he works his way through the labyrinth of his own ventures makes exciting reading.

The Final Detail is about growing up, about life catching up to you, about facing up to who you are or what you're fleeing. It's about questionable ethics and moral shortcuts. It's about making the most of the turning points in your life.

I recommend it with pleasure. | August 1999


FREDERICK ZACKEL, who now teaches at Ohio's Bowling Green State University, is the author of Cocaine and Blue Eyes (1978) and Cinderella After Midnight (1980).


To learn more about Harlan Coben and his six Myron Bolitar novels, visit the author's Web site.