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The Dean of Suspense

Read his books  -- maybe.

By 7.8.09

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Relentless: A Novel
by Dean Koontz 

(Bantam Books,
358 pages, $27)

Dean Koontz is a serious (though not solemn) writer with a sometimes caustic wit, but with an optimistic message. He's often paired, not to mention shelved, with Stephen King. But Koontz's work is very different from that of the talented but smart-alecky and a-bit-too-edgy-for-some writer from Maine.

Koontz is a political and cultural conservative, a Christian who leans to the tragic view of life but celebrates tradition and the ordinary, especially ordinary love, as stays against the darkness. Few popular novelists put it on the line every book for conservative values the way Koontz does. He's a friend of liberty and human dignity. King, alas, is quite the other thing.

King has his moments, especially in the earlier novels. Then things start getting a bit dodgy, and often downright potty-mouthed. Counting f-bombs in some of King's novels (in the noun, verb, adjective, and gerund forms) is a little like counting drinks in The Sun Also Rises (a book by another writer who is less than rewarding to read after a certain age). And looking for a philosophy in King's work is an abuse of time and effort. Not so with Koontz, all of whose novels are about how to live. Life has purpose and meaning in Dean Koontz's stories.

But here's the problem for Koontz boosters. While Dean is a highly-skilled writer capable of lyrical heights, who treats theme, character, conflict, and motivation in the manner that thoughtful writers have through the centuries, he does this while including supernatural or fantasy elements in his stories as well as some truly strange characters, human and animal, and the occasional monster or sci-fi trick. And his bad guys are often violent, though this violence is never graphic or lingered over. 

Some readers of "lit-tra-tur" just can't get around the monsters and the fantasy. Doubtless many of Koontz's readers are looking for straight escapist fare, which the books can be on one level. But Koontz gives his readers much more than just a few hours of escape. (His books have sold more than 400 million copies -- so there's something here for nearly everybody.) He creates believable heroes and heroines who deal with their challenges and conflicts with solid human qualities, not with supernatural tricks (OK, there's one sci-fi trick in Relentless). His sympathetic and well-drawn central characters are not just backdrops for the monsters and the ghosts. They're the main event. They engage the kind of questions memorable literary characters always have.

Koontz's stories are morality plays, with good and evil easily identified, and intelligently parsed. No moral relativism here. In Koontz's fictional universe characters make moral choices and are held accountable for them.

Koontz started his career in the sixties as a sci-fi writer, then moved to suspense, and has matured almost into a category of his own. He gives booksellers fits deciding where to shelve his books. He's often misdirected to the horror shelf next to King et al. He never wrote horror, not fancying the gore and nihilism that mar that genre, though he sometimes borrows the foreboding mood of horror for his suspense tales.

Most of the time Koontz winds up in the mystery/thriller section, though in truth his skill and sensitivity and reach make him a mainstream writer. The not-too-useful answer to the question -- "Are Koontz's books mystery, suspense, fantasy, thriller, sci-fi, or detective?" -- is yes. And there's usually a romance in them as well (though not presented in the bodice-ripper mode).

Readers of thrillers don't usually expect astute social commentary with their adventures, and most don't demand high literary performance or an engagement with ideas. But they get these with Koontz. He's mainly a storyteller, and his reflections on the current scene don't get in the way of but become part of his stories. Koontz writes novels, not political pamphlets. But the ideas are there for those who are interested.

A recurring theme in Koontz's novels, including in Relentless, is the contrast between normal, decent citizens and the political elites who attempt to micro-manage them. In his last several novels Koontz has had a good deal of fun at the expense of global warming hysterics and their enablers. In The Face, and in other novels, Koontz shows Hollywood in its comprehensive shallowness, and rakes academe for its anti-intellectualism and petty viciousness.

Unabashedly pro-life, in One Door Away From Heaven Koontz takes on "bioethicists," a phony branch of elite philosophy whose principle purpose seems to be to justify allowing badly ill or disabled people to die. In Dark Rivers of the Heart Koontz goes after abuses of the federal asset-forfeiture laws. The news media regularly get their bark removed in Koontz's stories. And politicians don't get off lightly.

Koontz hasn't been silent about government abuses off the page either. He's had some astringent things to say about the government assaults at Waco and Ruby Ridge. 

In Relentless, Koontz manages to graft a philosophical treatise, almost a manifesto, onto a chase thriller. He starts with an attractive, wholesome, though not entirely believable family. The parents are both successful writers. The six-year old son is a genius science-geek. Even the dog is as bright as the average college sophomore (though not as noisy).

All of this is a bit off-plumb. But with Koontz's considerable humor and deft description, it's easy for all but the strictly literal-minded and the whimsy-averse to find this improbable foursome engaging.

The serpent appears in this slightly flakey garden in the form of a nasty review of the husband's (Cullen "Cubby" Greenwich) latest novel by no less than "the senior critic for the nation's premier newspaper." When, against all advice to just ignore the review, Cubby tries to make contact with the critic, an always-right-on-the-brink-of-life-and-death chase begins which lasts through the novel, and is the skeleton on which Koontz builds yet another case against intellectual elites who've made such a hash of our lives by discrediting the wisdom of tradition, including the faith of our fathers, to be replaced by their own utopian theories. I mean, in how many thrillers does Rousseau get a mention (an unfavorable one, of course)? This may seem improbable, and of course it is. But the result is both thought-provoking and entertaining.

Love, hope, community, meaning, faith, courage, a respect for tradition, and a reverence for truth give Big Brother a run for his evil money (actually, our money) in Relentless, and in Koontz's considerable back list of novels (most of which are still available). A few books back a reviewer with the NYT, which normally only considers Koontz's books to sneer at them, panned the novel for having too many red state values. His digs at bioethicists in One Door Away From Heaven got him some nasty letters from that lot. He clearly irritates the right people.

I bring all this up only because I know it's not easy for conservative readers to find quality fiction by writers sympathetic to their world view. Most mystery/thrillers writers who allow their worldview to show in their work come at things either from the left or from a world-weary cynicism. The publishing industry itself tilts left. Koontz is one of the few contemporary popular novelists who are both talented and right.

So I'd be delighted if any TAS readers acquire the Dean Koontz habit. His stories can be sources of both delight and hope. But for those who read a bit of him and decide they can't go on, all I can say in my defense is that I warned you about the monsters.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.