Harlan Coben has been writing mystery novels for 30 years. While I’ve never read one, they are inescapable in airports, the kind of page-turner you can probably pick up and finish in a single cross-country flight. They are full of secrets and twists, and they are perfect for the Netflix binge-watching model, as we saw in last year’s crime drama, Safe, starring Michael C. Hall. I watched Safe and I don’t remember anything about it except how jarring Michael C. Hall’s British accent was and how quickly I consumed the series.
This year’s The Stranger replaces Michael C. Hall with Richard Armitage (who is like Michael C. Hall with a natural British accent), but keeps all the secrets, twists, and frustrating coincidences, as well as the setting in British suburbia. I’m flummoxed as to the British setting, given the fact that Coben’s novels are all apparently set in New York and New Jersey, but the stories nevertheless feel well suited to the Greater Manchester area.
Armitage stars as Adam Price, a suburban dad with two children, an adoring wife, and what appears to be the perfect family life. That life is upended, however, when The Stranger (Hannah John-Kamen) — a mysterious woman in a baseball cap — approaches him and tells him that his wife, Corrinne (Dervla Kirwan), faked a pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage. Adam follows the breadcrumbs that The Stranger leaves behind and ultimately confronts his wife when the evidence confirms the Stranger’s account. Corrinne tells Adam that there is more to the story, but before she can fully explain, she disappears.
Where she f*cks off to and why is the chief mystery of The Stranger, but there are a number of other mysteries that weave in and out of the central story. For instance, Adam’s teenage son, Thomas (Jacob Dudman), is involved — along with his best friends — in the hospitalization of a classmate who is found naked, unconscious, and nearly dead in the woods after a drug-fueled party (this storyline also, inexplicably, involves the decapitated head of an alpaca). There is also a detective, Johanna Griffin (Downton Abbey’s Siobhan Finneran), whose best friend is murdered after she is blackmailed by the same Stranger who confronted Adam about his wife’s fake pregnancy. In fact, this Stranger confronts a lot of people about their secrets, sometimes with the intent to blackmail and other times simply to inform, and Johanna finds herself in the middle of all of the investigations. There’s even an inexplicable Munchausen By Proxy subplot, a murderous cop, and a storyline involving a character played by Stephen Rea who is very good at tracking down people.
Some of the storylines are filler and/or red herrings, which feel both frustrating and necessary to keep the ball hidden. The story also feels like a televisual page-turner, and the performances from Armitage, Finneran, John-Kamen, et. al, are strong enough to deftly serve the plot but not so showy as to get in the way of the story being told. It’s also written like one of those bleak British crime dramas, but the lighter tone is more akin to an American criminal procedural, and it makes for a potent combination — the stakes are high, but it doesn’t feel as grim. That is especially true with the ending, which we will discuss in a separate spoiler post later this week. Ultimately, The Stranger is a lot like most decent mystery novels: Entertaining, but meant to be consumed not remembered.