This week, I finished reading the suspense-thriller/horror novel, ‘Life Expectancy’, by Dean Koontz.
The following review is written from a writing perspective. Rather than describe the plot-line in detail, I will be highlighting key areas of the book that particularly drew my attention as a writer. Please note that there will be spoilers.
A brief blurb of the book goes something like this; Jimmy Tock is born on the same night (in the same hospital) that his Grandfather dies. In his dying words (over a thunder and lightning storm) the Grandfather leaves his own son (Jimmy’s Father) five bad predictions that will occur on particular dates in Jimmy’s life.
When we read the blurb on the back of the book, we are told that there will be five predictions, but not what they are. This is a perfect example of ‘the power of a hook in a blurb’. When we discover that there are five predictions but not what they are, our curiosity is sparked and we are held in a grip wanting to know more. The main reason for a hook is to raise questions inside a readers mind (the what, where, why) and to push them on to read further. The blurb’s hook leaves us asking several questions that we want answers to, for instance; What are the five predictions? Where do these predictions occur? Why does it happen, and why does it happen to Jimmy Tock? And ultimately, will Jimmy survive these five terrible predictions?
The book is written in first person, from the viewpoint of Jimmy Tock. The first person tense has an immediate connection with the reader; enabling us to step into the protagonist’s shoes and experience their world through the five senses. I personally loved the ‘voice’ of Jimmy – a guy who has a slight complex about his physical appearance (and talks about it to us) yet is strong-minded – in general. I have often read that a main character (hero or villain) should be capable of dealing with all of the obstacles that you place in his path – that they should be able to fight all conflicts to the bitter end – even if in the end they win or lose. I have also read that a main character should not be completely perfect and that they should have at least one flaw – one that he has to face and fight on a more personal level. If we analyse the profile of Jimmy Tock, we get a real-life, everyday guy with an unusual, personal flaw -but one that is used for a very different reason in this book (I won’t give the flaw away!).
Jimmy is capable of battling out his conflicts both internally and externally, and he changes and gets strongers as the book progresses. Of course, although he ultimately gets stronger, we do have to see his efforts waver along the plot line in order to keep the reader tense – and guessing. It is essential that we see him fall and rise at his own efforts – and that he used all he had to reach the end. We should adopt this process with every character we design.
I also think that Jimmy ‘shined’ as a character because of his impeccable sense of humour. When I look more closely at the entire chemistry of the book, I see a strong fusion of horror and humour. This dark/light is a fantastic combination because it ensures that we are not trodden down in darkness and depression for pages on end. The humour brings us to laugh (even in the darkness moments) with the characters.
It is often said that it is a crime for the author to ‘step into a narrative with his own opinions’, and I agree. But should an author want to air an opinion in their novel (politics, religion, law etc) then they can learn a lot from Dean Koontz and his method. I am not saying that all of the views in his books are ones that he believes and airs, but as a reader I have analysed that it often seems to be the case in places. I think that this can be a good thing when done correctly because it adds a personal touch without spelling it out. So how does Dean do this? Well his views get injected through his characters and their dialogue. The dialogue of one character may contain an author’s personal view of something happening in the world – or it may contain a humorous line that the author has always told in his own life. This is where we get into the territory of ‘how real or fictional are your characters?’ I believe that most authors, when sketching out characters, will use a mixture of both real and imagined personalities in order to create new and unique characters. I have often wondered how much of the author is in a character – in the many of the characters I have come to meet in books. In the case of Jimmy Tock, I believe that he contains a lot of Dean Koontz’s sense of humour – which I must say is impeccable!
I am not sure if any of you have heard of the quote ‘all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl’ by Jean Luc-Godard (a French Film Director) but I believe this quote rings true for almost any film and any horror/thriller book. It certainly rings true for this book, where there are numerous guns and gunshots – which also occur around an attractive female character, that later becomes the wife of Jimmy Tock. I suppose what the gun and girl quote is really saying to us is that a story isn’t a story without a gun (symbol for conflict) and a girl (symbol of romance) as such. That without conflict we have no story, that without love we are missing a key part of our souls – that together they fuse a Universal idea. Both these elements combine love, excitement, danger and romance – and what is more exciting than that? Nothing. Knowing that this book contains what I consider to be two essential themes in fiction, tells me that Dean is a master of his craft – that he has studied and mastered the mechanics of writing and his specific genres. This allows him to go that extra mile with his trade-mark sense of humour.
Lastly, even though this book was made up of many pages, the tightness and suspense of plot, the interesting characters, and those five predictions made me read on to the end! I am usually a medium-paced reader, but with this book I was flying through! That’s a good sign.
I recommend this book to readers who love a fast-paced suspense thriller/horror – and those who like a dry and wicked sense of humour mixed in. When I read the last page I was sad that I would never live with these characters again – that their journey’s had ended. If a writer can inject a character or two into a reader for life then they have done their job well. That’s why we remember and love the classics – it’s all about the characters. I still find myself repeating some of Dean’s creative character names from this book, just because they sound so good on the tongue! Punchinello, Konrad Beezo… Amazing!
Until next time,
Thanks for reading!