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Amherst College grad Harlan Coben keeps the page-turners coming

  • Robert Frost Library, Amherst College<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • "Six Years," a new novel by Harlan Coben, below right, takes place at a New England college that greatly resembles Amherst College, Coben's alma mater.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Robert Frost Library, Amherst College<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Johnson Chapel, Amherst College<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Valentine Hall, Amherst College<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • The novel's narrator, Jake Fisher, is the young head of the college's political science department, with an office in Clark House — the name of the real Amherst poly sci building.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Valentine Hall, Amherst College<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Coben's character Jake Fisher often eats lunch at a restaurant named Judie's.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

Harlan Coben has lots of connections to Amherst College. For one, the popular mystery writer is an alum — class of 1984 — and so is his wife, who graduated in 1985. Not only that, he now has a daughter attending the school.

But Coben, who’s penned 24 novels in a career that dates back to the early 1990s, has made only passing mention of Amherst or the Valley in his books — until now.

In “Six Years,” Coben’s new novel, which currently sits near the top of the New York Times Best-Selling Fiction list, his alma mater and an imaginary professor there are at the heart of the story. Amherst is still a bastion of higher learning and erudite thinking — but it’s also ground zero in a plot that involves Mob hit men, people with double identities and a professor obsessed with a woman from his past.

In a phone call from his home in New Jersey, Coben, 51, said he’s developed characters in past novels who attended Amherst or had some connection to the college. But he never was inclined to use the school or the Valley as a major setting.

With “Six Years,” though, he changed tactics.

“I decided I wanted to set a book on a college campus, and it made sense to think of Amherst. It’s something I know, it’s an important part of who I am. I still have a lot of ties to the school and the area, and it just made sense.”

Of course, the name of the leafy, Massachusetts liberal arts school in the story — Lanford College — is a fictitious one, but there are plenty of references to real locations, on campus and in the town of Amherst, to make the setting quickly familiar to local readers.

The novel’s narrator, Jake Fisher, is the young head of Lanford’s political science department, with an office in Clark House — the name of the real Amherst poly sci building — and Jake sometimes bops into town for a bite at an eatery called Judie’s. He also recalls his days as an undergraduate at Lanford, when he helped finance his education by working as a bouncer at a college bar called Barselotti’s.

Though he says all his characters, including Jake Fisher, are “entirely fictitious,” Coben — who majored in political science himself — notes that he’s drawn on the teaching styles of a number of his favorite teachers from Amherst, such as political science professor Austin Sarat, and Gordon Levin of the history department, in fashioning the portrait of Fisher in his classroom.

The Amherst professors were good role models, Coben says.

He’s also drawn on the formula that’s made him a successful writer, both in many critics’ eyes and at the cash register, with 50 million book sales, in over 40 languages. In best sellers like “Tell No One” and “Hold Tight,” Coben has staked out territory in what might be called family thrillers, in which everyday people are caught up in dangerous, unexpected events that test their courage, resourcefulness and even sanity.

The plots often revolve around traumatic events in the past — murders, fatal accidents, people’s disappearances — that have left unanswered questions, which in turn come back to haunt the main character or characters.

The plot thickens

In “Six Years,” Jake Fisher would seem to be a pretty lucky guy. Just 35, he’s already head of Lanford’s political science department, a popular teacher who truly loves his job. But Jake’s been functioning a bit on automatic pilot, ever since Natalie, a woman he’d fallen hard for during a summer romance at a Vermont artists’ retreat, suddenly ditched him and married an old boyfriend, Todd.

At the wedding, Jake had told Natalie he still loved her, but Natalie’s only response was to insist that Todd forget her and never try to contact her again.

Six years later, Jake has kept one part of that promise. But he’s never stopped thinking of Natalie. So when he reads an obituary for her husband — it turns out Todd was an Lanford grad, too, some years ahead of Jake — he impulsively heads to the funeral, in Florida, thinking there might be some chance of rekindling the flame with Natalie.

But the bereaved widow he sees is not Natalie — and whoever she is, it turns out she was married to Todd for over 20 years.

Jake figures this mystery renders his vow not to try and contact Natalie null and void. But his efforts to track her down keep running into dead ends, or leading him into even murkier waters. Friends they had in common no longer remember him. Natalie’s sister, Julie, who had been at Natalie’s wedding, claims she’s never met Jake in her life and tells him to not to contact her again.

And the Vermont arts colony where he’d met Natalie? It no longer exists. In fact, a few old employees he recognizes in the nearby town claim there never was such a colony, and none of them admit to ever knowing him, either

Jake’s continued sleuthing — he’s having a hard time keeping up with his classes through all this — reveals that Todd was tortured and murdered. From there the trail leads to the mysterious disappearance of a former Lanford professor and a possible link to shadowy figures from New York City’s underworld.

Everything around Jake suddenly feels ephemeral and unreal. Just who is he? And is his friend, humanities professor Benedict Edwards, really who he says he is? Did he somehow imagine his whole affair with Natalie? If he did, why is his life now threatened by two men who appear on campus, asking Jake to take them to her?

Different voices

In the phone call from his home, Coben said he wanted to be become a writer by the time he reached his junior year at Amherst. He published his first novel, “Play Dead,” in 1990, but for some years after graduating he mostly made his living in the travel business.

His breakthrough came in the mid 1990s, when he developed a series built around the character of Myron Bolitar, an unorthodox New Jersey sports agent who also helps solve mysteries for his clients. After writing several of those books, Coben returned to stand-alone mysteries like “Tell No One,” which was made into an acclaimed 2006 movie in France, “Ne le dis à personne.”

“I start with an idea, and then I decide who can best tell that story,” he said. “I like to find different ways to present a story and use different voices — it keeps the writing fresher and gives me some creative leeway.”

Coben’s books are also noted for their dry and often self-deprecating humor. He employs a fair amount of that in “Six Years,” painting a portrait of some hard-drinking Lanford professors, including Jake, and a phony college president: “Jack Tripp was sleek and polished and corporate with floppy hair and capped teeth. ... His job, though couched in haughty terms of academia and higher learning, was all about raising money. Period.”

But “Six Years” is also about the power of love: It’s the one thing Jake has to hold onto as he navigates a maze of ever-deepening deceit and confronts the fact that the world can be a morally ambiguous place.

Coben has several other irons in the fire these days. In recent years he published two books for young adult readers, both based on the character of Mickey Bolitar, the nephew of Myron. He’s also co-written a screenplay for his novel “Stay Close” with Lawrence Kasdan, writer and director of several films including “The Big Chill.” His new novel has been optioned for a movie that’s slated to star Hugh Jackman as Jake Fisher.

Other students who emerged from Amherst College in the mid-80s to become authors include Coben’s old college buddy and fraternity brother Dan Brown, of “The Da Vinci Code” fame, who’s about to release his next book, “Inferno,” as well as cartoonist Bill Amend, who pens the “Foxtrot” strip, and the late writer David Foster Wallace.

“It’s pretty good company to be in,” Coben said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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