Dean Koontz has been on the bestseller list with his books for quite a
few decades now; one of his current series started with a book called
Odd Thomas in 2003. Odd (that’s his first name) sees dead people. I see
an old idea in new clothes.
I used to be an avid Koontz reader, and many of the books from his
are very familiar to me: from about the era of Phantoms in 1983,
through Twilight Eyes, Watchers, Lightning, and Midnight during
the 80s, I kept up with his books. I remember The Bad Place vaguely,
the cover of Cold Fire vividly but nothing about the book, and then Hideaway
in 1992 was the last Koontz book I read. I was falling out of my
“horror phase” about the same time as Koontz was himself, and something about the new Koontz phase – vaguely
mainstream-y covers, generified thrillers – didn’t appeal to me.
But he’s still burning up the bestseller lists, so
I figured I would take a look at something recent, just for old times’
sake. Odd Thomas seemed like a good place to start, since a good
portion of Koontz’ output in this century has been that book and the
sequels to it.
As I’ve mentioned, Odd sees dead people.
He’s a 20 year-old living in Southern California, but he sounds
suspiciously like a literate 60 year-old writer whose pop culture
references are all from decades ago. He must have spent every waking minute studying cultural minutia from the past to sound so out of date! Sarcasm aside, it’s too bad that Koontz chose to tell
the story in first person, since Odd’s unconvincing characterization is
even more grating. Simply put: Koontz has no handle on the 20 year-old brain, and it sabotages the book from the start.
The first chapter of the book had an interesting revelation for me: as I was listening to it (the
audiobook version), I had a vivid flashback to what it was like to pick
up a new Koontz book back in the 1980s. Namely, that the first 50-100 pages were
tough to get through, the writing was bad, and the characters wouldn’t
click. But then once the storyline kicked in, the book improved
immensely and you could get a sense for why Koontz was doing so well as
a writer. Setup was not really his thing, and frankly, why bother if
you can churn out the good stuff later on in the storyline?
That was not the case for Odd Thomas, since the book, apart from the missteps in narrative voice, starts off quite strongly. We’re introduced to
Odd, most of the people in his neighbourhood and his life, and he
solves a crime right off the bat. A ghost of a girl points the way to her murderer, who of course doesn’t go quietly. Good stuff, if derivative of The Sixth Sense.
though, the energy leaks out of the book, like an inverted progression
of how his books used to be. Odd solves a murder in the first few chapters, then spends the bulk of the book telling us that bad things are going to happen soon. There are weird shadowy creatures called “bodachs” that congregate where evil is about to happen, and there sure is a lot of evil about to happen in Odd’s town. I’m thankful that Koontz didn’t do the
stereotypical plot for someone who can see the dead, but this stuff was
just boring. Worst of all, after sidetracking into a bunch of material not particularly related to the premise as laid out in the beginning, Koontz provides a sting-in-the-tail that’s a breathtakingly-direct lift from The Sixth Sense.
Just like Odd’s narrative voice is not convincing as a
20 year-old, Koontz uses a lot of details about life in 2003 but the
story still feels like it’s floating in its own bubble, tethered to
reality here and there, but in a curious way never really intersecting
with us. Part of it is that the writing is not particularly sharp or
But that’s a bestseller for you, says my cynical
side. Nothing about the book is sharp or new, but who cares? It’s
relentlessly middle of the road, right down to the word choice, but
Koontz is still old reliable. Reliably laughing all the way to the bank, which is not the final
revenge but it’s pretty close. True; all the same, Koontz won’t be making any new trips to the bank on my account.
I had originally thought that I would revisit some Koontz classics like Lightning or Whispers, but now I’m going to leave it. Koontz might surprise me, but I’d prefer to remember them as “possibly good” rather than wading through the tough 50-100 pages at the beginning and discovering that the rest doesn’t measure up either. Odd Thomas casts a long reflection for me; I don’t trust Koontz
Clearly, though, Odd Thomas is a durable character, in the arena of the bestseller, since Koontz has written
another 3 novels about him. Odd has taken on a life of his own, with even a flashy website that makes him look a lot hipper than he comes across in the books. There’s a lot here if you care for it.