Netflix crime thriller Fool Me Once is modern-day pulp fiction

Clarisse Loughrey’s Show of the Week column, published every Friday, recommends a new series to watch. This week: the cheap thrills of Netflix’s latest Harlan Coben adaptation Fool Me Once.

On the first day of 2024, Netflix promised to soothe all kinds of hangovers (alcohol-induced, cheese-induced, emotional labour-induced) with the release of Fool Me Once, the latest entry into the Harlan Coben televisual universe. Coben, a popular crime novelist who’s sold more than 80m copies, struck a deal with the streaming service back in 2018 to adapt 14 of his novels, intended for various European territories.

Three of the seven series released so far have been in English and produced in the UK. All three have starred Richard Armitage, and featured Brassic creator Danny Brocklehurst as head writer. And all three have been varying shades of nonsense, tailor-made for people who’ve mastered the art of unpairing their eyes so that one can be focused on the television and another on their Instagram feed. It’s a show that’s very easy to make fun of, in ways that don’t necessarily contradict the intentions of its creator.

Michelle Keegan stars as war veteran Maya Stern, whose sister Claire Walker (Natalie Anderson) and husband Joe Burkett (Richard Armitage) were both murdered in (apparent) botched robberies. Claire worked for Joe’s family company, Burkett Industries. It takes an excruciating amount of time for everyone to figure out their deaths might be connected. There’s a suspicious suicide, too, alongside a long-lost progeny, weird rituals at a posh boarding school, corporate conspiracy, and, most pressingly, a secret nanny cam that captures what appears to be a very much alive Joe.

Coben’s works are built to shock and so are, in a logical sense, an ideal fit for the Netflix algorithm. Explosive confrontations are carefully spaced out, intended to snap you out of the slumber you’ve inevitably drifted into at just the right time. Each episode ends with a shock twist that plays neatly into the hands of the service’s “autoplay” function. Fool Me Once, like so many of Netflix’s thrillers, has been created quickly and efficiently to satiate the audience’s desire for short-term, easily consumable titillation. My mind, then, couldn’t help but wander to the topic of modern-day pulp fiction.

There’s a tendency now to play fast and loose with the term “pulp”, as if it were just another word for “lowbrow”. Yet, it more specifically applies to the magazines, popular in the first half of the 20th century, that published a wide range of fiction stories—romance, adventure, sci-fi, crime, horror etc—on pages made from cheap, wood pulp. They were preceded by the 19th-century “penny dreadfuls”, and succeeded by the early market of paperback novels, frequently sold to commuters in train stations.

And while they featured some of the greatest writers of their time (Isaac Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Ray Bradbury amongst many), they were also deliberately ephemeral. The pulp pages were quick to crumble. Readers would consume these stories voraciously, then move immediately on to the next. “The pulps were usually written in spare language, sometimes without narrative coherence or character development,” Dinitia Smith writes in the New York Times. “But the stories moved fast, and they were a guilty pleasure, easy to hide under the mattress.” Most of this, too, would apply to Fool Me Once, which can’t be hidden under a mattress, but can be consumed in private, at home, either secretly or as a proud, ironic bit of “trash TV”.

While I would argue these kinds of populist crime shows do fulfil a role once occupied by the pulp fiction detective stories and their dark, violent shocks, it’s quite miserably emblematic that this work is now being done by glossy productions and large corporations. There’s a very modern sort of dissonance here: Fool Me Once is clearly a pricey affair, where every house is an orgy of aspirational living and Dame Joanna Lumley turns up as Joe’s meddlesome mother. Yet, this show is exactly as disposable as the old, pulp fictions. No one will talk about it in a month’s time, and it’s at risk of being stripped from the service, without warning, and obliterated into nothingness.

While the luridness of pulp fiction often reflected conservative anxieties, and so inevitably contained a lot of horrific racism and misogyny, the very opposite could be true, too. Its position slightly outside of the cultural mainstream allowed for some more subversive, often queer, writing to sneak in—especially, as Miss Rosen points out in Huck, in the mid-century, when small publishers would help disseminate radical, leftist ideas through the sale of cheap paperbacks.

In Fool Me Once, all you’ll find is a mainstream author and streaming service clumsily attempting prestige topicality. It’s revealed early on that Maya is quite probably a war criminal—a thoughtless, ridiculous way to present a “complicated protagonist” with zero moral resolution. There’s also an attempt to co-opt the recent trend of “eat the rich” narratives, with no acknowledgement that absolutely everyone in this series lives in a gigantic house. Fool Me Once thrills are cheap in the distasteful sense, but at least they’re only temporary.