Saturday, 16 April 2011

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz; a second visit to Koontzville

Here we have a definite argument for giving an author a second chance. My previous experience of Dean Koontz had been The Taking, which I loathed utterly. I found it annoyingly written, badly conceived and preachy. However, I had heard it wasn't typical of his work (my girlfriend is a fan, although she hasn't read The Taking), and when I was given the audio of Odd Thomas I thought I'd give it a go.

Odd (who has heard various reasons for this given name, none of which are quite convincing), is a short order cook in the quiet mid-Califoria town of Pico Mundo. He is very good at this, is polite, respectful, simple though far from stupid, and liked by just about everybody. And he sees the unquiet dead. They do not talk to him, but he often understands that he can help them and he states that he has often helped the local police force apprehend killers – although only the police chief and a few other select friends know of his gift. Odd has also been having a recurring dream of bloodshed on a large scale, and this book unfolds the psychotic plot behind that vision.

I have often been perturbed to see reviews where the reviewer's sole reason for disliking a book seems to be a dislike of the main character; many great and good stories revolve around characters that are unsympathetic, flawed or even downright unpleasant. This, however, is one of those books that relies on the attractiveness of the protagonist. You can't help feel that you would get on well with Odd Thomas, and value him as a friend or acquaintance. Perhaps a little too nice, although Koontz manages to avoid even this failing from detracting. (When we learn about Odd's background it's possible to wonder just how he turned out so well, but that's another issues).

Koontz gives us what is basically a thriller with a supernatural slant. Odd's premonitions and his Psychic Magnetism Sense (PMS as his girlfriend has christened it, in one of the many nice touches of humour) leads him to uncover a murderous event in the near future (I was put in mind slightly of Stephen King's The Dead Zone, although the TV show more than the book, but I loved that TV show!) and setting about to prevent it. As Odd says early on, “I see dead people and, by god, I do something about it.” Because of the premonition lead story, and the feeling that the hand of fate is ever present, there is quite a heavy deus ex machina element to the plot – there were a couple of points when I thought “why doesn't he do that?”, where his action or inaction proves crucial later on – but in the reality of the book that seems to fit. Odd says that he doesn't believe in coincidences, a statement that is guaranteed to set my teeth on edge in the mouth of a cop or private eye, but Odd sees the unexplainable on a daily basis and not only believes in god but believes that he will go to a better place after death – although not with quite enough conviction to make him sound smug about it. This is fair enough in the context of the book; after all, ghosts and the supernatural are an integral part of the plot.

As well as the deus ex machina there are other problems. Sometimes Koontz's authorial voice jarred me a bit as it seemed at odds (sorry) with Odd's voice. One of the things I hated about The Taking were the right-wing rants, and occasionally in Odd Thomas these creep in – sometimes in a fairly minor way that many people might think (on using his laminated drivers licence to jimmy a lock Odd states that at last he's got something back for his state taxes), to a random rant about the arrogance of scientists, to a truly bizarre statement that the golden era of Elvis was the last time popular music was pure because since then all pop music consists of nothing but pro-Fascist anthems! These do, to me, seem to jar, but I guess I didn't create the character so the author should know him better than I do, although it does sometimes feel as though the author is rather more judgemental and less likable than his protagonist. On the other hand, Odd has a thorough dislike of guns which is, I understand, rather unusual for a Koontz book – The Taking, certainly, was bit of a Evangelical survivalist wet dream – but the attitude to firearms here is much more ambivalent.

There is a certain amount of moralising, but I didn't find it overdone – as I had, frankly, expected to. Good and evil are clearly defined, and there is no real reason given for the evildoers actions [even their supposed satanism seemed more like a self justification than a driving force]. It is interesting to compare Dean Koontz to Stephen King. In King's small towns the presence from outside reveals evil already present, or builds on petty human failings to create evil, but Koontz makes Pico Mundo something of a bastion of tranquility that is invaded by an evil from without – although not entirely so, as the characters' back stories reveal, which stops it being too perfect.

Along with some nice characterisation, good pacing and occasionally lovely, often understated, writing I was happy to share Odd Thomas' little world with him for 400 or so pages.

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