Title: The Darkest Evening of the Year
Author: Dean Koontz
Length: 461 pages
My star rating: ★ ★
This book came with the recommendation of a dear friend; I wish I had liked it better.
The back cover also declares it to be “Silence of the Lambs meets Marley & Me.”
As someone who counts Silence as one of their all-time favorites (in terms of both story and characters), let me tell you: this was nothing like it, except that dogs featured in both. Also, crazy people–though Koontz’s variety were pretty sub-par.
Rather, Koontz’s novel reminded me of a Thomas Harris wannabe trying to write more like Stephen King. While I love both writers dearly, that is not a compliment. (Harris’s is very direct and is a master of crafting both vivid, lifelike characters and heart-stopping suspense; King, meanwhile, is quite wordy, but nevertheless highly readable and entertaining…and often terrifying.) Another reviewer called Koontz the knockoff to King’s Gucci handbag. I wish I’d come up with that one.
In this long exposition, let me also say that I love a good murder mystery and am not opposed to violence. I’m a fan not just of King, but also of David Lynch and his characteristic weirdness. So neither the gore nor the supernatural/paranormal puts me off, as a rule…if it’s done well.
It wasn’t in this book.
The main reason Koontz reminded me of Harris was that he seemed to be getting to a point with his writing–about the characters, the plot, whatever; he seemed to be moving forward. (For those who don’t know, Harris is snappy. He doesn’t dawdle on descriptions. Things happen in his books.) But he wasn’t. The entire four-hundred-plus-page story takes place over the course of maybe three days, but it dragged on forever.
Part of that was due to the obsessive descriptions of golden retrievers featured throughout the book. The way Koontz writes about them is preachy, bordering on worshipful. I like dogs, though I’m a cat person, but it was over-the-top and distracting. (Yes, we get it: adopt, don’t buy!) The main dog in the story, a golden named Nickie, is Special…as in, she may or may not be an angel and/or possessed by the spirit of a dead child. And she definitely does have magical healing powers. Gag.
tl;dr Koontz’s writing isn’t bad. In fact, it’s downright poetic in places–though quite convoluted in others. Its real problem is that It just doesn’t go anywhere
much like this review thus far. It doesn’t move the story. It’s fluff. Padding. Purple prose. To make matters worse, the entire novel is split into minuscule five- to seven-page chapters, all of which alternate POVs.
His characters were also weak. The heroine seemed promising, but her main personality trait was that she Really Loves Dogs. (Maybe she’s the they compared this to Silence, because like Clarice Starling, she grows up in an orphanage and craves stability. Seriously, it’s the sole real connection.) Her love interest is as bland as plain oatmeal. They have each made a single Very Bad Decision in the past that haunts them, but are otherwise Very Good.
The villains are, likewise, Very Bad. One is the hero’s ex-girlfriend, Vanessa, the depths whose sadism and psychopathy strain credulity. (She burns people alive. She abuses her disabled child. Etc.) Those traits also makes her very boring. She should, at least, be repulsive–but instead, she’s merely unmemorable. The other villain, Vanessa’s lover, has a connection to the heroine, but he’s barely even a character. Their POV chapters are written in present tense, a strange stylistic choice that serves only to interrupt the already-choppy flow of the story.
There are half a dozen other unbelievable, unlikable, forgettable characters–private detectives, hitmen, etc.–scattered throughout. Koontz assigns them dozens of ultra-specific preferences and habits in an effort, I suppose, to make them more realistic. He then disposes of them all, making me wonder why he bothered in the first place. It also makes me suspect that compelling and well-rounded characters are as much about what an author withholds as what they reveal.
As for the plot, it was formulaic and contrived. Everything depended on rather absurd coincidences, though Koontz insists these are meaningful “patterns”. Frankly, the heroine’s harrowing, chapter-long backstory would have made a far more thrilling thriller than what is actually presented. Nothing here terrified or repulsed me, because it was obviously meant to. Koontz was trying much too hard to shock his readers throughout. It’s all wrapped up in a nice bow at the end by a brief and cheesy epilogue, too–stinking of pure laziness and apathy on Koontz’s part.
He also commits the cardinal sin (in my opinion) of genre fiction: referencing better works. Don’t do it.
He got out of the Land Rover and said, “Look at you, you’re Hannibal Lecter.”
Georgie mangled the line from the movie about eating someone’s liver with fava beans and a good Chianti. (252)
The allusion doesn’t even make sense–there’s no context for it whatsoever. It comes via painfully unrealistic dialogue in reference to a character who was just introduced. But maybe this what made someone think to compare this book to Silence. (Several chapters later, another minor character is compared to “a young Jodie Foster,” so even if you forget the first reference, there it is in your face again.)
I’m given to understand that Dean Koontz can do much better. I believe it, from the hints of truly good prose I saw here. But for now, I’m thoroughly on Team King.