Hazel McHaffie

More thrills from Harlan Coben

Well, as predicted, the extreme weather (commonly dubbed the Beast from the East) meant no one in our area was going anywhere any time soon. So, with all my appointments cancelled for six days, I did indeed have a lot more reading time than anticipated. And I made a rather interesting discovery.

Miracle Cure is one of Coben’s earlier works. He wrote it in his ‘naive’ early twenties and in my version (re-published twenty years later), after re-reading it himself, he makes something of an apology: it’s a bit ‘preachy’ and somewhat ‘dated’.¬† But those very criticisms made me feel a whole lot better. Why? Because I’ve said the same of my own early writings. So, being already a fan of his work, I was keen to see for myself just how he’d fallen into the same trap.

It’s a book set in a particular time in history, a time when HIV/AIDS was first coming to public attention. I remember it well. Fear of the unknown and sensational headlines fuelled a real sense of foreboding and doom. But I was unexpectedly thrown into this whole scenario at the deep end. I applied for a research post in the Institute of Medical Ethics which was exactly where I wanted to be, and got it. My first investigation there was to explore attitudes, fears and education around this whole topic – across the UK. In order to thoroughly understand what was happening I immersed myself in the culture and context. I spent a lot of time with homosexual men, intravenous drug users, and the folk who tried to help and care for them. I visited centres set apart for people infected with the virus, many of whom were in the terminal phases of the illness. I watched gay marches for justice. I sat in a prostitutes’ clinic on one memorable day. I cried in response to a young man who had lovingly nursed several friends through agonising deaths. I listened to terribly bigoted and judgemental people who believed this was God’s plague sent on the immoral world.

Coben’s story is set in the USA where opinion was much more polarised and vocal. It includes
– a dedicated team of doctors researching a cure for AIDS in the Sydney Pavilion
– the lead scientist, Dr Harvey Riker, whose own brother died of the disease, and who has dedicated his life to this cause
– his colleague, Dr Bruce Grey, who’s convinced he’s being followed and in danger
– a televangelist, Reverend Ernest Sanders, a rampant homophobe, who’s leading a crusade to condemn all those who contract the virus and shut down the centre
– Sara Lowell, a beautiful but crippled tele-presenter and reporter who wants to expose hypocrisy and reveal the truth
– Dr John Lowell, her father, formerly Surgeon General, whose loyalties are seriously conflicted
– Sara’s handsome star basketball player husband, Michael Silverman, whose own symptoms suggest something sinister
– Cassandra Lowell, her promiscuous and jealous sister
– Lieutenant Max Berstein, a policeman whose brilliance is hidden behind a facade of nervous tics, and whose own personal history is kept under wraps
– George Camron, a brutal hired killer whose techniques are not for the fainthearted …
– a whole cabal of powerful men who all seem to have secret and highly suspect agendas …
oh, and so many more besides,. You need all your wits about you to hold this mighty cast of characters firmly in your head and sort out the Saras from the Susans, and the Matleys from the Markeys, and the Willies from the Winstons.

But it’s well worth the effort. As I’ve said before, Coben is a master plotter, and he keeps you guessing till the end. I ended up suspicious of almost everyone! But knowing some of the tricks of the trade I had a head start once I got the hang of the points of view we were given. And it was there I think, that it became apparent that this was an early work. Here and there the POV was smudgy.

But it’s in relation to the subject matter that I most identified with Coben’s ‘naivety’. He describes his style as ‘preachy’. It packs a stack of information into the speeches made by the characters as they lecture and educate and inform. As an author with something of an agenda myself, I worried a lot about getting the balance right between spinning a gripping yarn, informing the reader, and putting across intellectual challenges. My early publishers told me it was the fictional approach to serious issues that constituted the main appeal of my books, their unique selling point. And that was the point. But I am less inclined to pack in as much information nowadays.

Coben also calls his book ‘dated’. And indeed it is – as medical works can so easily become. But it properly captures the public hysteria and professional angst that prevailed at the time. Back then we had no idea what kind of Armageddon lay just over the horizon. But we were terribly fearful, and fear and passion to avert catastrophe can drive people to extraordinary lengths. Coben has merely traced a possible scenario; and done so brilliantly.

It’s now back to my own cliff-hangers with a sense of having just had a wonderfully instructive masterclass!

(NB. The conflation of HIV positivity and full-blown AIDS is medically inaccurate in places but that too was a common error in the early years of this disease.)









And yet he recognises¬† that there’s an energy and risk-taking about it that he hopes he still has.

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