Koontz's latest is wooden and contrived

December 07, 1993|By Gregory N. Krolczyk | Gregory N. Krolczyk,Contributing Writer

Mystery writer Marty Stillwater had a beautiful wife, two wonderful daughters and a career that was just starting to reach wildly successful heights. In short, he had a lot to lose. So when he began having blackouts, Marty was more than a little concerned, positive that they were signs of either a debilitating physical or mental condition. He should have been so lucky.

What Marty is soon to learn is that these fugues are just harbinger, a mental warning that something is coming: Something that's been carefully trained to kill, and does so easily and without remorse; something that seems impervious to injury regardless of its severity; something that wants Marty's wife, his kids, his career, his life, as its own; something that claims most vehemently to be Marty Stillwater.

A novel comprises lots of different elements (plot characterizations, pace, etc). The better done each of these elements is, the better the novel as a whole will be. But few writers are consistently able to work equally well in all of these areas; they generally excel in one area and handle the others with lesser degrees of expertise. This point is dramatically illustrated in Dean R. Koontz's latest work, "Mr. Murder," which, if nothing else, is a perfect example of how good he can be at one thing and how poor he can be at most everything else.

The first problem with "Mr. Murder" is its characters. While Mr Koontz usually does a good -- but not great -- job with his adult characters, none of them here is even close to being engaging. The children are even worse. The last (only?) time a Koontz-created kid actually rang true was Thomas, the Down Syndrome boy from "The Bad Place." Otherwise, his children act more like little adults than kids, and the two in "Mr. Murder" are no exception.

Problems also abound in the story. Not only is "Mr. Murder" slo to get started, but when it finally does the plot seems all too familiar (Iwould think that comparisons to a certain book by that King guy are inevitable). Next, while a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is to be expected and accepted, a number of the more mundane elements of "Mr. Murder" seem just a bit too contrived.

"Mr. Murder" also has an unusual (for Mr. Koontz) amount o proselytizing, a long "children's poem" that hardly seems appropriate for its intended audience, and an ending that's something of a cheat.

So, with all these problems, what's there to like? "Mr. Murder does several passages that are nothing short of compelling. These are passages in which, despite the flat characters, wooden dialogue, overly contrived circumstances and too-familiar plot, Mr. Koontz manages to hook the reader into reading "just one more page."

These passages don't last very long, and they are, unfortunately, the exception rather than the rule. But they do attest that Mr. Koontz does know how to tell a tale. Maybe the next time he'll do just as good with the rest of the elements.

(Mr. Krolczyk is a writer who lives in Baltimore.)

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Mr. Murder"

Author: Dean R. Koontz

Publisher: Putnam

Length, price: 416 pages, $23.95

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