Dan Mercer knows he shouldn't be entering this house. But CAUGHT by Harlan Coben starts out with him going into that darkened house, ignoring his misgivings and walking straight into a nightmare. A seventeen-year-old girl has simply vanished into thin air, and there is nothing that a dedicated policeman can find that that will solve the mystery. Dan's problems, however, are easier to quantify - he's been caught in a televised sexual predator sting - run by journalist Wendy Tynes.
As the story builds the possibility of a link between Dan and the missing Haley, the life of Wendy in particular gets a hefty concentration. Starting Wendy off in the role of vigilante is a risky act on the part of this author as it's not too hard to imagine that she's going to be a unsympathetic character for some readers. There is some blurring of the harder edges of her characterisation with the story of her own life - the death of her husband at the hands of a drunk driver, her relationship with her teenage son and her father-in-law (the father-in-law was a standout character for this reader at least) and her ultimate acceptance that perhaps she'd unfairly accused Dan (too late for him of course). There's absolutely nothing wrong with an overtly unsympathetic central character however, and there are elements of Wendy that make perfect sense (taking a moment to consider whether I could forgive a drunk who killed my husband - and well let's just hope I'm never put in that position as I'm not too sure how I'd go), but something didn't completely ring true for me. I don't have a problem with characters that I don't personally warm too - but I have to be able to believe in them implicitly. There's something about the various epiphanies and circumstances of Wendy that simply didn't ring true - was too convenient.
From the opening scenes of this book - the sting, then a missing young girl, you could be excused a sense of overwhelming inevitability that's very very hard to lose. CAUGHT is very much a thriller style book and there is a lot happening as the many threads work their way towards a conclusion. There is quite a sense of pace at points throughout the book, but it could be a little patchy, with not quite enough to distract me from the overt engineering of many of the plot elements. There are a lot of supporting characters and it did seem at points that we were heading off into territory that might have been vaguely amusing (if you like aging white rappers and unemployed men sitting around in coffee shops), but there were points when I got a distinct feeling of frustration as we headed into a lot of twisting and turning passages without the magic word.
As a reader not adverse to a thriller, I found myself struggling with CAUGHT. Perhaps things didn't get off to a great start for me with the vigilante TV show sting, and it went downhill as I found the only character I could believe in (the policeman investigating Haley's disappearance) fading more and more into the background. For a thriller to work for this reader I've got to be able to suspend disbelief, and there was something about the plot that didn't quite carry me forward regardless, and something about the characters that didn't let me forget or forgive their flaws and go with the ride.