The immediate flaw in any attempt to stack the ten extant Harlan Coben TV thrillers in order of greatness is that none of them are exactly great. Nearly all of them though, are compulsive viewing and will pull you through a bucking and twisting story at the speed of a beagle on the scent of a nearby sausage. They’re packed with incident and revelations, and are generally performed by a charismatic cast so big that you’ll never quite meet them all, let alone tire of their company. Binge-watches par excellence, each one of these series is precision-designed to be gulped down in very few bites.
As these stories all shop for plot in the same aisle, chances are that if you enjoy one Harlan Coben thriller, you’ll enjoy the others. They’re all filled with cliff-hangers, twists, secret identities, surprise resurrections, flashback wigs, and oh-no-it-was-you-all-along reveals. They’re largely fun, is the point, despite an over-reliance on unlikely coincidence and a tendency to unravel come the finale. The European adaptations (so far there have been three French, one Spanish and two Polish, with more on the way) tend to be less fun than the UK-set series, which lean into their high-colour absurdity with more gleeful abandon. If you’re watching with subtitles then, expect more nudity and sexual violence, and fewer comedy alpacas.
Here then, are all ten Harlan Coben series so far (Shelter and more are also on their way) listed in order from least to most enjoyable, along with details of where they can be streamed.
10. Disparu à Jamais/Gone for Good (2021)
Watch on: Netflix
The coastal city of Nice makes a très beau backdrop for this French adaptation of Coben’s 2002 New Jersey-set novel Gone for Good, but that’s more or less all this five-part thriller has going for it. It’s the story of Guillaume, a young man who suffers a dreadful loss in 2010, but then repairs his life just in time for it all to fall apart again in 2020 with the disappearance of his girlfriend. So unravels a complicated crime story with a needlessly repetitive structure.
The dialogue veers between perfunctory exposition (“Remember, we have to get up early for your mum’s funeral,”) and melodrama, the characters are bland or cliched, the performances uncharismatic and the story sadly lacks any convincing surprises. And while Harlan Coben thrillers almost all include flashbacks to decades earlier (sometimes relying on a wig to de-age an actor by 20 years, with… variable results), here, the time jumps between 2010, 2017 and 2020 confuse rather than engage. What it lacks in charm, it makes up for in gunfire and shootouts with preposterous villains. Nice looks nice though.
9. The Five (2016)
Watch on: NOW (UK), Fubo/Directv (US)
This was the first of the UK Coben adaptations by Red’s Nicola Schindler, Richard Fee and writer-producer Danny Brocklehurst, and while it laid down a basis for what was to follow, the formula wasn’t quite there yet. It’s about the disappearance of a five-year-old boy in the 1990s, and the winding path to finding out what really happened 20 years later when a group of grown-up childhood friends including the missing boy’s brother reunite to discover the truth.
At 10 episodes, The Five is over-long and feels convoluted, but its main issue is character. The lead cast of Tom Cullen, Lee Ingleby, Sarah Solemani and O-T Fagbenle are individually strong, but have very little chemistry with each other, making them unconvincing as a group of lifelong friends who were supposedly inseparable as children. Add to that some nasty sexual abuse plot threads, an ending that involves an enormous coincidence and a major suspension of disbelief, and The Five doesn’t really add up to much. It’s still very watchable, with all the hooks and tricks in place to pull you through the plot, but is ultimately too ruled by contrivance to be properly satisfying. That said, it is perhaps the only crime drama to feature a high-speed foot chase involving a detective leaping over multiple caravans, so there is that.
8. Juste Un Regard/Just One Look (2017)
Watch on: All4 (UK), not currently available to stream in the US.
This is the classic Coben story of a comfortable middle-class existence shaken by long-buried secrets. It starts well, and has a great lead in Virginie Ledoyen playing Eva – the most improbably beautiful forest ranger France has ever seen – but the finale is pure Scooby Doo nonsense. Prepare yourself for that, and this six-episode French mystery will fill your time well enough.
It’s the story of Eva and Bastien, a happily married couple with two kids whose life is turned upside down when Bastien disappears one day. So begins a series of twists involving gangsters, psychopathic killers, car chases and the uncovering of decades-old secrets. To be frank, it’s all a waste of a great lead in Ledoyen, and not only pivots on a preposterous coincidence but also relies upon some faintly ridiculous flashbacks of men in their 40s trying to pass as their 20-year-old selves (think Joey from Friends in his beanie hat). Look out for novelist and screenwriter Harlan Coben making one of his many Alfred Hitchcock-style cameos as a hospital doctor in the finale.
7. Hold Tight (2022)
Watch on: Netflix
This is the second Polish Harlan Coben adaptation after 2020’s The Woods (see below) and purists should technically watch that one first, because Hold Tight continues the characters of Pawel, Laura and Kaja from the earlier series. However, you won’t be at a disadvantage if you come in completely cold as those three are just supporting characters and to be honest, there’s plenty about Hold Tight that will leave you scratching your head anyway.
It’s the story of dead teenage boy Igor and the secrets his friends are keeping about the circumstances of his accidental death. There are drug dealers, revenge porn, assassins, and Bushido stick fighting. Thematically, it’s about the love a parent has for their child, and the perennial Coben theme of the secrets our loved ones keep from us. It’s overstuffed with plot and finale twists that, once prodded, fall apart under scrutiny. It’s very much not the tightest, or the most entertaining Harlan Coben adaptation, hence only landing at this point in our list.
6. The Stranger (2020)
Watch on: Netflix
The Danny Brocklehurst/Red Productions adaptations get into their stride with The Stranger, which combines the classic multiple-murders-multiple-secrets stuff of the Coben novel with an emerging bizarre sense of humour. The Hobbit and Hannibal‘s Richard Armitage stars as Adam, a man approached by the titular ‘stranger’ and told a disturbing allegation about his wife. And Adam’s not the only one. The same young woman (Killjoys‘ Hannah John-Kamen, gender-swapped from a male character in the original book) is going around town spilling secrets and setting off figurative bombs in the lives of comfortable middle class families.
In the end, it’s all connected in a series of implausible yet neat ways, and the eight episodes conclude with a decent finale that sees the various plot threads accounted for. Highlights are Siobhan Finneran and Kadiff Kirwan as cops Joanna and Wes, and a very welcome appearance by Jennifer Saunders. Look out for Coben playing a police computer analyst in the back of an episode two shot. See also: alpacas.
5. The Woods (2020)
Watch on: Netflix
The first Polish-language Coben adaptation (now followed by Hold Tight – see above) on Netflix is the story of a boy and a girl who went missing from a summer camp as teenagers in 1994. Grzegotz Damiecki plays the brother of the missing girl 25 years later, as he investigates what happened that night. It’s part mystery, part romance, and part critique of the difference between natural justice and that offered by the legal system.
The Woods demands that you pay attention, not least because of the frequent jumps between the past and present, in which the same characters are played by more than one actor. (For non-Polish speakers, the subtitles are a boon in that area, and useful for staying oriented.) It’s a dense and compelling story that, while stretching credulity in the way these things tend to, nonetheless keeps you engaged. The chief positive is the cast, with strong performances from Damiecki and his on-screen partner Agnieszka Grochowska, and a great choice of young actors in the ‘before’ sections.
4. Stay Close (2021)
Watch on: Netflix
The most recent UK Coben thriller is an extremely watchable eight-episode story revolving around Megan Pierce (The Good Fight‘s Cush Jumbo), a charity worker and mother of three whose life is tipped upside down when (you guessed it) secrets from her past start to bleed into her present. When a young man goes missing from a nightclub, his wealthy father sends two psychopathic assassins to find him, while local cops Broome and Cartwright believe they’re on the trail of a serial killer.
Stay Close may have some grisly revelations in store (the weak-stomached, be warned), but it’s also where Coben thrillers really make peace with their natural absurdity. That’s seen in the characters of killers-for-hire/musical theatre nerds Barbie and Ken, who tap dance and jazz hands their way through torture and knife-fights as the twisting plot builds. There’s a very decent cast in this one, which also features James Nesbitt, Sarah Parish, Richard Armitage (again) and Eddie Izzard.
3. Une Chance de Trop/No Second Chance (2015)
Watch on: All4 (UK), PBS Masterpiece (US)
Anuzzer French sirees de ‘Arlan Coben here, and the best of the bunch so far. No Second Chance aired in the UK as part of Channel 4’s Walter Presents strand of quality non-English language drama, and it’s a good pick, if not quite the season of Spiral it would perhaps like to be. Alexandra Lamy plays Alice, a doctor who suffers a brutal attack in which her baby daughter is kidnapped. So begins a race to find the girl while trying to solve the mystery of who broke into Alice’s family home.
What Alice discovers as she searches for baby Tara is a tragic family history, and a complicated international operation. After a tense and eventful opener, a solemn story unfurls that’s not quite done justice to by a slightly cheesy conclusion, but at only six episodes, No Second Chance doesn’t outstay its welcome. The real star of the series is Hippolyte Girardot as grouchy detective Tessier, part of the team tasked with tracing Alice’s missing daughter. Alice’s character was originally a man in the US novel, and the change was worth making if only to set this six-part series apart from others in the ‘find my daughter’ revenge genre.
2. Safe (2018)
Watch on: Netflix
All anyone likes to talk about with Safe is Dexter star Michael C. Hall’s British accent (which is uncanny in every sense of the word) but this eight-part thriller has more to offer than that. Hall plays Tom, a widower and father of two ex-army surgeon who lives in a gated community among a bunch of wealthy neighbours under the illusion that their money has made their families ‘safe’. Safe from what? Abduction, murder, drugs, scandal, their own troubled and long-buried secret pasts… You name it, this lot have done it.
What’s really right about this one is the cast, which balances Hall on a fulcrum of Amanda Abbington and Marc Warren playing Tom’s two closest friends, and then tips that balance in the right direction with the always-unforgettable Nigel Lindsay as the flash dad of a tearaway teen. The plot is rightly ludicrous (there are 19th century morality novels with fewer hidden relations and terrible secrets), but it all rips along enjoyably, without leaving a moment to consider quite how unlikely it all is. A proper old-fashioned thrill ride.
1. The Innocent (2021)
Watch on: Netflix
Whether The Innocent would take your personal top spot in this list depends on whether you prefer your Harlan Coben series fizzy and bizarre, or earnest and straight down the line. This Spanish adaptation is the latter, a serious thriller filled with prison, guns, sex cults, blackmail, murders and voice-over narration. (Personally, the nasty sexual violence made me long for the alpaca oddness of the British strand, but there’s no debating that this is a seriously good thriller with one of the most satisfying endings of any on this list.)
The Innocent, largely set in Barcelona, is the story of Mat, an ex-convict lawyer whose wife goes missing, setting him on a complicated journey themed around revenge where the twists keep coming. It’s about the notion of second chances, and would probably have been called that had Harlan Coben not already published ‘No Second Chance’ (see above) in 2003.
Read more about Harlan Coben on Den of Geek here.