The Five writer Harlan Coben on making the leap from books to television

The millionaire author discusses his 28 books, his childhood and his new show for Sky

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A ten-part TV series is a novel project for prolific American author Harlan Coben. Called The Five, it spins the agonising story of a boy who was killed 20 years ago. Or was he? He seems to have turned up again with a different name. The evidence for this is not so much a clue as downright proof – his DNA.

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If you are familiar with Coben’s output of crime, suspense and mystery fiction, you will see his fingerprints everywhere: the powerful premise from which the ensuing quest draws its urgency; the past turning up when you least expect or want it.

Coben is currently between books. He has written 28, no matter that the literary establishment, however you define it, has remained sniffy. He has just turned 54 and first got published at 26. Hence a book a year, each one commanding advances well into seven figures. He’s published in 43 languages, with his novels going straight to number one in the New York Times bestseller list eight times in a row.

Married to a paediatrician, Coben is a happily home-bound father of four, with a ferocious, freely acknowledged work ethic. He grew up in modest circumstances, the son of a Jewish lawyer in Livingston, New Jersey. He studied political science at Amherst College, played basketball then worked in the travel industry until he was 30 and the writing had taken off.

But where do the seeds of his vocation originate? “My parents used to take us to New York City for activity weeks. There was a Barnes & Noble [bookshop]. You’d be given a paper bag and get all the books you could get into it for $5. I figured out how to pack in as many as possible. And I’d read right through books there and put them back on the shelves when I’d finished.

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“When I was 15 I read William Goldman’s Marathon Man, and I couldn’t put it down. I can remember thinking, ‘If I could just make people feel like that myself, by writing books, what a life that would be.’”

And it has been, until recently when he finished his 28th novel and was ready to do something else. He spoke to Sky, and to producer Nicola Shindler (Hillsborough, Queer as Folk) and, he says, was offered a “refreshing” degree of freedom.

The money wasn’t important. “I’ve always written the books I’ve wanted to write and I didn’t want to make just any TV show, but something legendary. I wanted us to reach for the moon.”

After the TV-novel (his own term for it) of The Five, it’s back to the gilded treadmill of book-writing. Is he looking forward to that? “A writer has a mix of two things. There is a tremendous hubris that someone might want to read 500 pages of your stuff. At the same time there’s an equally tremendous insecurity that you suck. They play against each other, all the way.”

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The Five begins on Sky1 with a double bill from 9pm on Friday 15th April