Harlan Coben is an indisputable master of crime fiction. His global reputation for creating bestselling suspense thrillers is so great that the latest of his 34 novels to be transferred to the screen, including "Tell No One" and "Safe," bears his name in the title, "Harlan Coben's Shelter."
Now on Prime Video in eight, tension-packed episodes, "Harlan Coben's Shelter" marks another first for the author -- it's his first attempt at young-adult fiction. For the series, he's brought along his daughter, Charlotte Coben, to make the dialogue ring truer to teen ears.
Charlotte is "a lot funnier than I am, and she gets younger people better," says Coben, adding it's cool to have her in the writers room "screaming at each other in a creative way." Solid move since the series' focus is 15-year-old Mickey Bolitar (Jaden Michael), a sophomore -- dad is dead, mom is in rehab -- who returns after a long absence to his New Jersey town and its dark secrets.
Coben fans already know that Mickey is the estranged nephew of Myron Bolitar, the former NBA star turned sports agent and amateur detective who drives the plot of 11 Coben novels. Just don't expect to see Myron here since he's about to headline an upcoming Netflix series.
In his place is Shira Bolitar (scrappy Constance Zimmer), Myron's sister, a type-A prosecutor awkwardly trying be a protective aunt. It helps that her ex-boyfriend (Lee Aaron Rosen) is the police chief, a fact complicated by her long-closeted feelings for the chief's wife (Missi Pyle).
But enough of the grownups. This one belongs to the kids. Michael, who played young NFL star Colin Kaepernick in "Colin in Black and White," takes a while to get past Mickey's recessive moodiness. But he grows into the role as soon as his relationship with another new student, Ashley Kent (Samantha Bugliaro), hits a snag when she goes mysteriously missing.
When even a friendly teacher (Didi Cohn) stalls him, Mickey forms a detective squad with two fellow misfits, super-nerd Spoon (a hilarious Adrian Greensmith) and goth girl Ema (Abby Corrigan), who gets gender-neutrally cast in the title role in the school musical, "Phantom of the Opera," the songs from which everyone on this theater-geek campus seems to know. Go figure.
The Phantom's subterranean lair hints at sinister doings beneath the surface of an otherwise sleepy Jersey town that may involve child trafficking and a local witch, the Bat Lady (Tovah Feldshuh), who scares the hell out of Mickey when she tells him his father is still alive.
And what about star cheerleader Rachel (Sage Linder) and her bullying boyfriend Troy (Brian Altemus)? Troy pressures Mickey to follow in his Uncle Myron's footsteps and join the hoops team until Mickey's talent on the court fires up Troy's jealousy.
To avoid spoilers, I'll say no more, except that the series lacks the propulsive pacing and high-wire tension that Coben builds on the page in "Shelter" and in two subsequent Mickey Bolitar novels, "Seconds Away" and "Found."
Shot on location in Coben's native Jersey, the "Shelter" series fights hard not to sink in the murk of overplotting and way too many characters. As usual, the Coben touch comes to the rescue by delivering the essential ingredient in any mystery: the pleasures of the unexpected.