RELENTLESS by DEAN KOONTZ — review

Published July 22, 2009

I’ve said it before and am likely to say it again: I am a big fan of Dean Koontz. Have been for nigh on 30 years. With over 50 bestsellers to his credit, and over 400 million copies of his books in print, the man is as prolific as Stephen King, if not quite as recognizable. His early, mid-80s novels like Watchers, Strangers, and Lightning are some of the most thrilling and suspenseful books I have ever had the pleasure to grip in my white-knuckled hands. Likewise in the 90s, tomes such as Dark Rivers of the Heart, False Memory, Fear Nothing, and especially Intensity kept me up until the wee hours. Mr. Koontz started off the new millennium with gusto: From the Corner of His Eye, One Door Away from Heaven, The Face, and then … something happened. I’m not saying the man lost his touch, but his novels over the past few years, Velocity, The Husband, The Good Guy (to name a few), have left me … wanting.

So it was with high hopes and unfortunately lowered expectations that I began his latest: Relentless.
Relentless
Rather than risk spoiling the plot with any clumsy prose, I will let the jacket copy speak for itself before I dive into any critical analysis.

#1 New York Times bestselling master of suspense Dean Koontz delivers a mesmerizing new thriller that explores the razor-thin line between the best and worst of human nature — and the anarchy simmering just beneath society’s surface — as a likeable, successful family man is drawn into a confrontation with a foe of unimaginable malice ….

Bestselling novelist Cullen “Cubby” Greenwich is a lucky man and he knows it. He makes a handsome living doing what he enjoys. His wife, Penny, a children’s book author and illustrator, is the love of his life. Together they have a brilliant six-year-old, Milo, affectionately dubbed “Spooky,” and a non-collie named Lassie, who’s all but part of the family.

So Cubby knows he shouldn’t let one bad review of his otherwise triumphant new book get to him — even if it does appear in the nation’s premier newspaper and is penned by the much-feared, seldom-seen critic, Shearman Waxx. Cubby knows the best thing to do is ignore the gratuitously vicious, insulting, and inaccurate comments. Penny knows it, even little Milo knows it. If Lassie could talk, she’d tell Cubby to ignore them, too.

Ignore Shearman Waxx and his poison pen is just what Cubby intends to do. Until he happens to learn where the great man is taking his lunch. Cubby just wants to get a look at the mysterious recluse whose mere opinion can make or break a career — or a life.

But Shearman Waxx isn’t what Cubby expects; and neither is the escalating terror that follows what seemed to be an innocent encounter. For Waxx gives criticism; he doesn’t take it. He has ways of dealing with those who cross him that Cubby is only beginning to fathom. Soon Cubby finds himself in a desperate struggle with a relentless sociopath, facing an inexorable assault on far more than his life.

Fearless, funny, utterly compelling, Relentless is Dean Koontz at his riveting best, an unforgettable tale of the fragile bonds that hold together all that we most cherish — and of those who would tear those bonds asunder.

For a novelist to make his most recent fictional villain a book critic is pretty funny. And indeed, the first half of this book is quite humorous. The tone is light, the quips amusing, and the heroic family endearing … if not entirely believable. That “brilliant six-year-old, Milo”? Um, yeah. “Brilliant” doesn’t quite do the kid justice. But I went with it. For a novel called Relentless — which I assumed was the author’s attempt to recapture the urgency of Intensity, after failing (to my mind) to do so in Velocity — the first half of this book is almost too lighthearted. Then, mid-story, the tone shifts, the ante ups, and the stakes rise significantly. However, after finishing the book only hours ago, I am still tempted to call this book a comedy. Mr. Koontz’s intent here, as always, is cross-genre (suspense, romance, humor, sci-fi), but this go round, his tongue may be firmly planted in cheek.

While some have accused this author of becoming too predictable and formulaic over recent years — an argument about which I am wont to waffle — many Koontz staples are certainly present in Relentless:

Protagonist from a tragic and abusive past: check.

Abnormally intelligent/talented canine: check.

Loving couple on the run from a corporate-based villain: check.

Completely repugnant antagonist with zero redeeming qualities: check.

Musings on the moral decline of modern society: check.

Message about the power of love and compassion overcoming evil: check.

While I could go on here (boy could I, but not without major spoilers), my point is not that the author is repeating himself with this book, but that those Koontzian ingredients are mixed with a finesse he has not displayed in a good little while. The distinction is all about the mix. When the man does it right, the result is deliciously familiar — when he does it badly (like he has of late, and boy do I hate saying that), it borders on self-plagiarism. Gone here is the maddeningly over baked prose that choked the suspense and hindered the momentum of his recent works. This book is lean, taut, and compelling … if a tad lightweight.

Is Relentless as good as the classics listed in the first paragraph of this review (all of which are good starting points for Koontz newbies)? In a word: no. But it is the best book he has written since 2003’s The Face. (Sorry, Koontz lovers, but I’m having difficulty getting through those Odd Thomas books — I will try again.) If anything, Relentless gave me renewed hope that my second favorite author (King Stephen still holds the throne) is returning to form. That’s great news … especially since his next novel, Breathless, comes out at Thanksgiving.

Can’t wait.

BOOK GRADE: B

If you have never read a Dean Koontz novel, Relentless is probably not the place to start — but definitely seek out those others I mentioned above.

In June 2009, Dean Koontz gave a rare and enlightening interview to USAToday — check it out.