Monday, July 15, 2013

Dean Koontz & Walter Mosley: One Plot, Two Thrillers

Reflections on ODD HOURS by Dean Koontz on Kindle, and LITTLE GREEN by Walter Mosley (New York: Doubleday, 2013).

I've recently enjoyed two best-sellers, supernatural thriller Odd Hours by Dean Koontz, and mystery Little Green by Walter Mosley. Different as these novels are, they have the same plot:

Conspirators, abetted by corrupt police, pursue an innocent person whom they believe to be messing up their plans to make big money.  As our hero tries to protect that innocent person, the bad guys are soon after our hero, too.   He  stumbles from one encounter to the next, meeting friends (sometimes familiar, sometimes new), evading enemies.  When cornered, he escapes by wit more often than by force, though he gets assistance from powerful allies at crucial moments.

But for a master gardener, it's not the plot, but what expert hands work into it that makes it bloom.  In both novels, the first-person narrators barely have time to rest, but they do take time to reflect while they ricochet around the streets and back alleys of their respective California cities.  It's in these reflective passages that the novels bloom.

Koontz's affable Odd Thomas keeps up a steady banter with us.  "As you know," he tells us, "I make it up as I go along, heart in my throat and bowels quivering near a state of collapse," an approach that works well, "Except when it doesn't" (location 3150).    He expresses cautious optimism. He speculates about the "vertical order" of the universe, meaning this life and the next, and the living forces that define that order.  He recalls his past mostly with gratitude, tinged with regret over his failure to save his fiancée's life. He takes pleasure in finding just the right way to describe what he sees, always attuned to analogs from literature and pop culture.  For example, there are echoes of famous poems by friendly old Carl Sandburg and sour old T.S.Eliot in his description of the fog that pervades the book:

[F]og crept along the alleyway behind Hutch's house, rubbing its furry flanks against the garages on both sides, slipping through fence pickets, climbing walls, licking into every niche and corner. (location 1013)
Odd also makes some wry comments about modern society, showing distaste for consumerism and materialism on one hand, and for government intrusion on the other.   A fruitless search for a pay phone sets Odd off on this rant:

Someday the telephone will be a small voice-activated chip embedded just behind the jawbone and under the ear.... Those commentators who explain our world to us and who tell us how we should feel about it will call the embedded phone "progress."  And when someone from the government wishes to speak with you, they will always know where to reach you and, because of your implant's transponder signature, where to find you.
This will go a long way toward encouraging the New Civility and toward discouraging the endless quarreling and tiresome debate that characterize our current society.... [Pundits will ensure that], in the end, you will like your new world and feel that it is a paradise on earth, so just shut up already. (location 4025 ff)

In a novel overlaid by fog, Frank Sinatra's blue eyes add welcome color.  Ghosts are Odd Thomas's clients, needing some assistance to resolve issues left over from their lives on earth.  Mute (as ghosts are supposed to be in Koontz's universe) but eager to entertain, Sinatra has latched onto Odd.  My strongest impression from the story is the vividly described mayhem unleashed when the Chairman of the Board loses his famous temper, preceded by witty dialogue that primes the tantrum.

All these pleasures come to us on the way to the plot's climax, when Odd Thomas stows away on the bad guys' ship.  I wore out the "forward" button on my Kindle.  The suspense doesn't end there, as Koontz tops that scene with a cat-and-mouse chase in a church. (Coyotes are involved.) 

Of the two series, Mosley's Easy Rawlins books are the more densely textured, woven of history, deep cultural issues, Easy's own past, and allusions to other literature (this time to Chester Himes and Ralph Ellison).  But of all the Rawlins books, Little Green is most buoyant - a word that Odd Thomas uses for his own attitude. 

Little Green, set in springtime, is about rebirth.  In the beginning, narrator Easy Rawlins wakes "dead and dreaming" from a coma, months after the suicidal car crash that ended the previous book in the series.  Characters familiar from earlier installments are here, taking loving care of Easy:  Raymond "Mouse" Alexander, Easy's adopted children Jesus "Juice" and Feather, who've grown up over the course of the series, and Jo, a healer.  With the help of Jo's voodoo medicine, Easy is soon up on his feet on a mission from Mouse, to find "Little Green," a young black man who disappeared days before in a hippie enclave.  When a white girl, confused by the way Easy defies stereotypes, says, "It's kind of like you're coming from four different directions at once," Easy comments to us,

I laughed heartily in reply.  This humor rose from the anticipation of the minor resurrection Jo's medicine would have on my body, and the recognition of the actual definition of a black man's life from that white girl's lips.  (112)

But it's not only Easy who has resurrected.  The accident happened at the end of 1966;  now it's 1967, and the world has been reborn. New music, new casualness about sex and money, new intermingling of races at hippy hangouts.  Rawlins often comments on how black men in America must be on their guard at all times, as in this powerful statement:

Black people in America at that time, and all the way back to our first conveyance, the slave ship, had received common traits.  For the so-called white man these attributes were merely hair texture, skin color, and other physical characteristics.  But our true inheritance was the fear of being noticed, and worry about everything from rain collapsing the walls around us to a casual glance that might lead to lynching.  We ... inherited anxieties like others received red hair or blue eyes.  (163)

So Easy is prepared to fight at a diner when a white guy objects to Easy's sitting with a white girl; but Easy's not prepared to have the guy's friends remove the racist, with apologies to the black man (114).

Easy's manhunt takes him to a hippy brothel, a rich kid's crash pad, a pot farm "commune," a luxury hotel suite, and a dozen other places, each with its own cast of characters, all summoned to our imaginations by apt descriptions. 

Some whimsical descriptions stand out. Easy, recovering from his coma, is so shocked by morning sunlight that he has to sit and breathe slowly.  He writes that "breath was like a playful carp swimming in and out of my body, strengthening me with each visit, bringing the light in small parcels that my living carcass could absorb"(148).  At a quiet moment, adopted daughter Feather asks Easy about her mother, and Easy tells us, "My other worries, seemingly of their own volition, climbed quietly over into the backseat of my headlong life" (237). 

I've read other mysteries that were padded with the detectives' personal problems, and I've turned pages through those parts, impatient to move forward with the story;  in the Easy Rawlins series, it's the crime plot that takes the backseat.

Note: I've blogged about Mosley in two other articles.  "Black, White and Noir" compares the worlds of black detective Easy Rawlins in 1967 to that of Ross MacDonald's white "noir" detective Lew Archer in a novel from the same time period.  "Guilty Pleasures in Crime Fiction" mentions Mosley's novels on a spectrum that includes work by Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, and Patricia Cornwell.  About Dean Koontz, I've posted articles throughout June and July 2013, making my way through most of the Odd Thomas series. 

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