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Just One Look    by Harlan Coben order for
Just One Look
by Harlan Coben
Order:  USA  Can
Dutton, 2004 (2004)
Hardcover, Audio, CD
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Harlan Coben is turning into my favorite thriller writer for strong, engaging characters, plots that are always unique, and action that twists and turns through constant shocking revelations. Despite past trauma at a rock concert, which left her with amnesia and a constant limp, Grace Lawson lives a happy life as a wife and the mother of small children, who still has time for her art. Then she picks up family pictures at the Photomat and her life falls apart on the cusp of that moment.

In the middle of the photo pack is a faded picture of two men and three women, in their late teens or early twenties. There's a giant X across one girl's face. How did this older picture get in with Grace's family shots? She's disturbed, which soon turns to distress when her beloved husband Jack goes missing after spotting the photo. The police don't take his disappearance seriously and Grace investigates on her own. Her concern grows after a phone call from Jack includes a private code that spells trouble. Grace tracks down Jack's sister, a lawyer named Sandra Koval whom she had never met before, but Sandra isn't talking.

In a parallel plotline, an attorney named Scott Duncan finds out that the fire that killed his sister Geri in her college years was arranged by a hit man. Who pulled his strings? The stories gradually move closer, as does mob boss Carl Vespa who's maintained contact with Grace ever since his own son was killed in the 'Boston Massacre' that maimed her. And there's another killer, an anatomical expert who learned his trade in a North Korean political prison, who shops for safehouses on the Internet, and ruthlessly disposes of his victims. When Grace's children are threatened, she seeks help from Vespa, to her later regret. As she gradually identifies the faces in the photo and discovers that they're all dead or have disappeared, she finds a disturbing connection to her own past. Who can she trust?

Harlan Coben provides his usual close calls, violent encounters, and interesting characters pulling in their own directions with individual agendas. Grace both succeeds and fails in her quest, which has a horrific, cataclysmic ending. And every time you think you know what's happening, the author pulls the rug out just one more time. Just One Look is a brilliant thriller that also makes you think about causation and blame in public disasters. Don't miss it!

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