In the increasingly lengthy oeuvre of Dean Koontz, there have been two recurring main characters. The first of these is Christopher Snow, the hero of the books Fear Nothing and Seize The Night. Snow is a surfer dude with a rare skin condition that makes it impossible for him to be subjected to high degrees of light. The character is, frankly, lame, as were the two books in which he starred.
The second recurring character is Odd Thomas, a short-order fry cook who has various extrasensory perceptions. For starters, he can see dead people, though they can’t speak to him. He also has a type of psychic magnetism that allows him to find people or things just by thinking about them and following his instincts when they tell him whether to turn left or right. He can also see black, ghost-like forms that congregate days in advance wherever there is liable to be death and sorrow.
Odd Thomas is one of Koontz’s most likable characters. The books in which he appears, Odd Thomas, Forever Odd, Brother Odd, and Odd Hours, are written from his perspective as manuscripts detailing his adventures. Odd doesn’t seek trouble, but finds it seemingly wherever he turns. In the first book in the series, Odd stops a terrorist attack but not before many are killed including his girlfriend and soulmate, Stormy. Without her, he leaves his hometown and begins to wander.
Yes, just like Kane in Kung Fu.
All four of the Odd Thomas books are enjoyable. They’re light and breezy, full of good humor and thrilling action sequences. In these “manuscripts” Odd rarely lets more than a few paragraphs go by without making some kind of joke. Despite the deaths (and more than a few people are killed in various ways in each of the books), these really are somewhat comic novels.
Consider this: Odd Thomas is sneaking on board a boat that is going to rendezvous with another ship and retrieve four nuclear weapons to detonate in American cities. There is of course, a guard. It is night, Odd is trying not to be seen. The situation is tense.
To get aboard, I would have to take out the guard here on the dock, but I could see no way to do it quietly.
Besides, I had to cross a swath of open planking to reach him, and I had no doubt that he would be better armed than I was. A better marksman. A better fighter. Tougher than I was. More brutal. Probably a kung fu master. Wicked with knives and martial-arts throwing stars that would be secreted in six places on his superbly fit body. And if I was somehow able to disarm him of every murderous implement, this guy would know how to make a lethal weapon from one of his shoes, left or right, he wouldn’t care which.
Koontz uses this tone in nearly all of his most recent books and it’s a tone that’s frequently jarring. Coming as the Voice of Odd, it’s not. One could make the case that it’s somewhat indulgent and serves little more than padding once it reaches a certain point, and those criticisms are at least partially true. Without the humorous asides and the Bringing Up Baby-style banter between characters, most Dean Koontz books would be about 150 pages long.
This makes it crucial to the success or failure of a Dean Koontz book that those 150 pages of serious content be good. The stronger the situation, the better the plot, the better the book. While that’s generally true of all fiction, for Koontz it is especially important. When he is inspired, his books become top-notch thrillers with a humorous edge. When the plot is lacking, there is no skeleton on which to hang clothes. The style is enjoyable, but it is not enough to carry a book.
Sad to say, the plot of Odd Hours is less than inspired. A small cabal of beach town police and citizens are conspiring with an unnamed Middle Eastern country to detonate four nuclear bombs in four cities. Odd meets an equally odd pregnant woman who speaks in riddles and who serves no discernible purpose in the book. Perhaps she will in the next book, but in Odd Hours the character of Annamaria is nothing more than providing a female presence. She hints that she is somehow magical and is able to command threatening coyotes to leave. Then she disappears for the next 60% of the book and makes one last appearance at the end, joining Odd Thomas as he continues his journey.
Odd is captured by the cabal but escapes by goading the ever present ghost of Frank Sinatra (he sees dead people, remember? And Sinatra has replaced Elvis, who was Odd’s invisible companion in the previous books) into becoming an angry poltergeist. He then gets a helping hand from an old woman who also has some sort of psychic magnetism. He finds the cabal, kills them all, and rides off into the sunrise with Annamaria at his side.
Frankly, it’s all very humdrum. The plot is way too thin and the resolution of the dramatic acts way too matter-of-fact. The character deserves better. Odd Hours seems like it was dashed off over a long weekend.
I do want to take one minute here to praise Koontz for his own idiosyncratic style. He writes across multiple genres: thrillers, sci-fi, horror, suspense, action, comedy, romance…frequently all in the same book. He does not so much write in a genre as he has invented his own. Earlier books, like Phantoms or Darkfall were easily summarized as horror fiction, Strangers and Demon Seed were science fiction, etc. But for over a decade now Koontz has been blending all of the different styles like an expert mixmaster.
The single biggest constant in his works, though, is hope. His books are not bleak or nihilistic (e,g, Scott Smith’s The Ruins). There is a genuine love of people (and dogs…boy, does Koontz love dogs!) that runs like a thread through all of his work. There is also a heavy amount of that ol’ time religion (Catholicism in Koontz’s case…whether the characters themselves are religious or not, the good guys at least behave in a uniquely Catholic manner, right down to abstaining from pre-marital sex).
These threads of love and religion give Koontz a platform in every book to make the case that despite the evil that lurks in the heart of men, goodness and light will win the day in the end. Unfortunately in these days this counts as a profound point, and Koontz makes it at every opportunity. It’s a message worth hearing, and the fact that it’s usually wrapped in a good old comic thriller makes it even more palatable. Sadly, Odd Hours is not all that good. It’s a passable way to spend a few hours, and that’s about all.
But the message remains.