What the reader knows is that a new Dean Koontz novel will follow a familiar pattern. A person with a tortured past will be put through the wringer, as will his family and loved ones. Facing seemingly impossible odds against forces of evil/night/darkness/whatever, the truly good in spirit will overcome, reinforcing the beauty of life that is promised to all of us if we are humble and grateful enough. And there will be a dog, usually a golden retriever, in the mix, representing an avatar of the light. The thrilling climax will be stretched out over fifty or seventy pages. And still I read each new Dean Koontz as it comes out: I get caught up in the ride, following it through to the end and eagerly await the next one to come down the pike.
The plot of What the Night Knows is covered in the book jacket blurb. Twenty years before, Alton Turner Blackwood went on a killing spree, destroying and degrading entire families every 33 days. The fourth family to be targeted had one survivor, fourteen-year old John Calvino, who managed to kill Blackwood only after his parents and sister were murdered and his sisters brutally defiled. Fast forward to present time. John Calvino is now a homicide detective, married with three children. Another family has been murdered in the same manner as the first family that Blackwood had killed. This time, the murderer was the family's young son, a boy who had no previous indication of violence. Disturbed by the pattern of this latest killing, Calvino visited the youthful killer in the secure mental facility where he had been incarcerated. The boy then quoted phrases that Blackwood had spoken to Calvino twenty years previously just before before being shot and killed by Calvino. Phrases that Calvino had never told anyone. And 33 days later another family is slaughtered. Calvino knows that his family will soon be targeted by whoever or whatever is repeating Blackwood's crimes.
I won't go beyond that basic premise here. I will, however, try to explain what bothered me about the book.
There is very little physical description of the main characters; rather, Koontz expends his energy describing the qualities of each member of Calvino's family. We know they are uniquely bright and talented and special. We know the world would be a much poorer place without them. We know they are bound to each other by a fierce loyalty and love that put everyone else in the novel to shame. We know that because we are told over and over again in so many different ways, usually in long paragraphs.
Calvino the cop is a loner, devoted only to his work and his family. He is honest to a fault and he has been redeemed by his love for his wife. His wife is an artist whose work has a positive quality that has been critically recognized. She accepts her gift humbly. Though not directly addressed, it seems that she and Calvino make enough money to afford a pretty large house and grounds, complete with a couple to cook and do the household chores. She also homeschools the three children. He keeps the household safe with advanced alarms systems (which seem to evaporate whenever he steps outside).
The children. The oldest, Zach, is almost fourteen and desperately wants to be a marine when he comes of age. He's been training to be a marine for two years. He has a strtictly platonic crush on a girl he knows, while seemingly not being curious or interested in sex. He has an aching love (in the purest sense) for his two younger sisters. Naomi is eleven and whip-smart. She's in love with fantasy worlds and magic princesses and dragons and whatever else I would presume a seven or eight-year old girl would be -- not an eleven-year old girl. Thing is, part of Naomi believes this could be real. Naomi has an aching love (in the purest sense) for her brother and sister. To me, Naomi is the most ill-imagined character in the family. Minnie, the eight-year old, is also whip-smart. In fact, she's whip-smarter than any of the kids. She also can sometimes see the dead, and she has a certain preternatural knowledge about things every now and then. Minnie has an aching love (in the purest sense) for her brother and sister. Almost every other character in the book is flawed or (to one degree or another) evil. The only exceptions are the housekeepers (who are not given any character and are mere set pieces) and Calvino's partner (who's only purpose in the book seems to be to disappoint Calvino and to be proven wrong at the end).
I guess the basic problem I had with the book is that it seems just too damned choreographed. It has a constructed flow, rather than an organic one. I felt manipulated far more than normal with a Koontz novel. Koontz usually handles these things much better. (Or does he? Had he reached this point with earlier books, and I hadn't recognized it, or cared to recognize it?) Of course, I must mention there was one plot point in the conclusion that I simply had a difficult time accepting.
Perversely perhaps, I still enjoyed the book. The plot is solid, the threat exciting, and I really cared about the characters, despite my comments of two paragraphs above. It is to Koontz's credit that he kept me reading -- kept me wanting to read -- despite the flaws that seemed to reach out and slap me on the side of the head. The guy can write, I give him that. Yes, I'll read his next book. And the one after that. And the one after that.
And did I mention that the golden retiever had been dead for two years?