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Criminally good: The Stranger author Harlan Coben talks Netflix adaptations

With an amazing 70 million book sales in the bag, Harlan Coben is embarking on a campaign to conquer the world of television with a slew of Netflix adaptations on the way, writes Darragh McManus


Screen star: Harlan Coben will see 14 of his novels adapted by Netflix

Screen star: Harlan Coben will see 14 of his novels adapted by Netflix

Screen star: Harlan Coben will see 14 of his novels adapted by Netflix

Over a transatlantic phoneline - equally undeterred by the early hour Stateside and the threat of a yipping dog interrupting our interview - Harlan Coben is in good form. The American crime writer laughs as he recounts how someone sent him clips from Gogglebox of people watching The Stranger, the smash-hit Netflix adaptation of one of his novels.

"Oh my God, I was laughing so much," he says. "Why don't we have an American version of Gogglebox? It's been great fun watching the reaction to The Stranger."

Why wouldn't he be in good form? Coben is surfing the crest of an extraordinary wave.

Over the course of 31 thrillers since 1990, the New Jersey native has sold 70 million books, while winning many of crime fiction's most prestigious awards. Now he's embarked on a campaign to conquer the world of television.

A remarkable deal with streaming giant Netflix will see 14 Coben stories adapted for TV (we've already seen the recent phenomenal success of The Stranger).

The only surprise is that it's taken so long. Coben's books are tightly structured, fast-paced and packed with incident and twists - perfect for transposition to screen. Yet, until this year, the only adaptations were three novels on TV between 2016 and 2018, and the 2006 French film version of Tell No One. Now there are Coben projects on the way from Poland, Spain, France and England, just for starters.

At the moment Harlan is also promoting The Boy from the Woods, a zippy, sometimes ambiguous and often thoughtful thriller. Wilde is the title character, found in the forest as a feral child with no memory of his previous life.

Now a middle-aged army vet, he still lives "off the grid" but has found a social connection of sorts, with the widow, son and mother of his late best friend. When the son's schoolmate goes missing in the same woods, Wilde investigates, cracking open broader conspiracies involving dark secrets from the past and a flamboyant, dangerous presidential candidate.

The idea for this "lost boy", Coben says, came to him while hiking in the same Ramapo Mountain State Forest which features in the story.

"I saw a young boy," he recalls, "and the thought occurred: what if he was coming out of the woods for the first time? He'd lived here his whole life, remembered nothing of his parents. Then 30 years pass and another kid goes missing in the woods."

The Boy from the Woods touches on some serious themes, both intimate (bullying, isolation) and more macro: fake news, political extremism, the murky underworld of private 'security' firms. Did Harlan intend to bring these in from the start, or did the story push him in that direction?

"I think both," he says. "I'm writing a contemporary novel, and these are things going on in the world right now. I don't take a right- or left-wing stand, I'm just reflecting what I see happening at that moment. For example, all these disinformation campaigns around the world: I thought that'd be interesting to add in. But only if it feels organic. If I have something I really want to talk about, but it doesn't fit into the story? Then you let it go. And you don't want to be a polemicist, regardless of how right you may be.

"I'm a storyteller, first and foremost. Everything is a slave to the story. My number one job is to write a book that you pick up at 11 at night, telling yourself you'll read a few pages, and the next thing you know it's five in the morning because you got so caught up in it."

The 2018 drama Safe, meanwhile, was the first Coben adaptation done by Netflix. It happened along when, he says, "they'd decided they wanted to be stronger internationally. We started talking about doing a series in France, another in England, and finally someone said, 'Well, we have a lot of other countries where the books did well.'

"So, we ended up making this deal, and this year so far we have The Stranger in the UK, an adaptation of The Woods being done by Netflix Poland - it's excellent, I'm really proud of it - and later this year The Innocent from Netflix Spain, and probably one from Netflix France, also."

It's fun and invigorating, he says, to do these projects across disparate countries and languages. Even though it's a Harlan Coben story, you get a different aesthetic in each: akin to writing some songs and giving them to a bunch of very different bands to record.

He's involved to varying degrees in each show - more so, unsurprisingly, in the English-language adaptations. "My title is 'creator and executive producer', and I work on the outline, getting the whole story done, but I don't write the actual scripts."

For The Stranger, Coben "watched hundreds of audition tapes and met different directors". He adds, laughing: "I've even been asked about costumes and hairstyles! It depends on where I'm needed - mostly script and story. These great directors don't need me to tell them how to do it."

Thirty years after his debut novel, and around 20 since he really broke through into the upper stratosphere of bestsellers, Coben is now one of the most popular and influential crime writers on the planet. But the giddy thrill of reaching readers and viewers with stories is as potent as ever.

"Whenever I'm on set for the first time," Harlan says, "or doing a first-read with the actors, I say to myself, 'I had this story idea in my house in Jersey, and now here I am in England or Paris or Barcelona, with a hundred people working together to bring it to life on screen. If you don't think that's cool, you're in the wrong business!'

"I mean the first day [on The Stranger], I'm in a room with Jennifer Saunders, Richard Armitage, Siobhan Finneran, and they're bringing my characters to life.

"That should get anyone a little emotional. It's exciting, every time."

The Boy from the Woods, published by Century, £16, is out now

Irish Independent