Lately I’ve had this habit of immersing myself in the things I watch or read. If I watch it, I’m likely to read it or vice versa. Sherlock Holmes. The Outsider by Stephen King. This time it’s The Stranger, Harlan Coben’s Netflix creation based on his book.
I know, right? Netflix again but I’ve found it to be a treasure trove of good writing brought to the screen, either from original material or derived from books, comics and graphic novels. I’ve read Mr. Coben before so when I saw he was associated with the show I jumped on it. The Stranger is a complex drama with multiple plot lines managed so well they mesh without confusing the hell out of you.
How do writers do this? First you have to start with a plot guaranteed to snag a reader with no more than the synopsis on the back cover. Coben writes crime thrillers. Very good ones. With The Stranger he might have done something like this: major plot, a blackmailer. Ok. Let’s make her a woman, less threatening upon first approach to her female targets. Young and attractive to make her initially alluring to the men. She would have to be clever and determined. Ruthless. Even her own father isn’t safe.
The first victim we see her approach is a lawyer. She tells him his wife faked a pregnancy, hands him a packet of information that includes a bogus sonogram, then walks out. The lawyer’s father, a philanderer, is informed he has an illegitimate child he doesn’t know about. A bakery owner gets hit up for ten-thousand pounds (the show is filmed in England) to safeguard her daughter from being exposed as an online prostitute. Two of these three are the unwitting secondary victims of The Stranger, the ones the primary victim doesn’t want to know their secrets. The lawyers wife tells him, “This isn’t what you think.” She asks him to give her a few days and she’ll explain everything then promptly goes missing. It’s the first branching of the main plot.
Naturally, it helps to spread the story over several episodes so the viewer can get a real feel for the characters, dive right into their convoluted lives. Their children form just one of the subplots. The first episode opens with a decapitated alpaca, a teenage rave party and the discovery the following day of one of the party goers naked and unconscious in the woods. A headless alpaca? Fake pregnancy, complete with a pretend belly? Yes, bizarre but not inconceivable.
That ‘s Coben’s genius. Weave the weird in with what would, for the police, be a routine murder/blackmail/missing person case. Throw in a mother with Munchausen by proxy, a dirty cop with his thumb in a nasty pie and a man refusing let the wrecking ball ruin his home…for a very dark reason. It makes a juicy story, rich in details, occupied by people whose layers are revealed one page at a time as The Stranger glides among them, capitalizing on their sins.
Daniel Brocklehurst, Mick Ford, Harlan Coben, Charlotte Coben (Daddy’s little girl) and Karla Crome have done a knockout job of writing this suspenseful series. They’re ably directed by Hannah Quinn and Daniel O’Hara. The main actors are Richard Armitage as Adam Price, the beleaguered attorney, Siobhan Finneran as DS Johanna Griffin, a cop investigating her best friend’s murder. Anthony Head, as Adam’s father Ed Price, adds polish with his smooth delivery. Hannah John-Kamen is The Stranger, whose pretty face hides a cold heart. The supporting cast members are multi-cultural and well played. For in depth details and trailers go to IMDB.
When I went to hunt for a new show yesterday to watch I wasn’t particularly impressed with the browse blurb or the trailer. It was like, yeah yeah yawn. Then I saw the words Harlan Coben. I’ve read The Five and Tell No One and thought they were absolutely marvelous. Coben has won the Anthony, Shamus and Edgar awards, the first writer to receive all three. I can see why. His novels have more twists than a Twizzler.
So, let’s summarize: start with a compelling plot, fold in multiple subplots that are closely woven to the main one, blend in complex characters whose eccentricities are fleshed out in a convincing manner. Sprinkle liberally with enigmas. Drive the story with your foot to the floor on a road as smooth as glass and you’ll have a thrilling mystery readers won’t want to miss.