Want to be a best-selling author? It's at least partly about timing. During the furor over The Da Vinci Code, all you needed was an excuse to put "Knights Templar" in your title, and publishers would come a'knocking. Now, in the wake of Marley and Me, your best shot is to write 50,000 touching words about your dog, and clinch the deal with some cute pictures.
Even political writers are getting into the act — from leftie emoter Anna Quindlen, to conservative talk host and legal beagle Mark Levin — and quite a fiew in between, penning heartfelt odes to their beloved pets.
Of course, fans of suspense novelist Dean Koontz — who is often wrongly pigeonholed as a horror writer — know that having a Golden Retriever with a featured role in his latest book is about as surprising as the title of a recent country album Dwight Sings Buck, or the headline "Reed Says War is Lost."
Koontz's beloved Golden, Trixie, died last year, so it's only natural that his latest pro-life suspense fable, The Darkest Evening of the Year, has an even bigger dog role than usual. Darkest Evening sometimes reads as if the late scribe of canine nobility Albert Payson Terhune ( Lad, A Dog) collaborated from beyond with Thomas (The Silence of the Lambs) Harris, spiced, of course, with Koontz's signature conservative social commentary.
It sounds like an uncomfortable mix, but it one which Koontz has delivered before. While I cheer Koontz's ubiquitous rants on leftist academics, depraved intellectuals and Freudian excuse-makers — the customary villains of his tales — sometimes he integrates his message more seamlessly (Life Expectancy) than others (One Door Away from Heaven).
Having just lost the World's Greatest Mutt to old age and now raising a Golden Retriever in the middle of puppyhood, I may not be the most objective observer about how all the dog stuff works in Darkest Evening.
But The Darkest Evening of the Year is far more than a mere mix of sap and suspense for the light reading portion of your day. Koontz attempts something deceptively ambitious here, arguing for the humane treatment of animals while simultaneously rejecting the philosophical underpinnings of the animal rights crowd and radical environmentalists — all without sacrificing one bit of entertainment value.
(The fact that his "tacked-on political or cultural commentary" got under the skin of the New York Times' Janet Maslin is heartwarming in itself.)
The hero of Darkest Evening is Amy Redwing, an orphan raised by nuns who is now a passionate "Sandra Bullock- cute" young woman dedicated to the rescue of abused Golden Retrievers. Her boyfriend, architect Brian MacCarthy, gets more than he bargained for when he accompanies Amy on a mission that results in rescuing a family from an abusive drunk, not just their preternaturally perceptive dog, Nickie.
But Brian soon has a rescue mission of his own to undertake. His sociopathic ex, whose similarly twisted new partner calls her Moongirl, has resurfaced and is offering Brian a chance to reclaim their Down syndrome-afflicted daughter whom she blames for ruining her chance at the good life with a billionaire lover.
Meanwhile, unknown to them, an implacable killer is on Brian and Amy's trail. Going by the alias of Billy Pilgrim, this hired gun is one of the many here among us who feels that life is but a joke. "Billy" favors aliases from Kurt Vonnegut novels, but occasionally branches out to other scribes of hopelessness like Kafka, from whom he takes his life cues.
He had no patience for those few books on the market that sought to find order or hope in life. He liked books steeped in irony. Wry comic novels about the folly of humanity and the meaninglessness of existence were his meat. He didn't care for writers full of brooding nihilism, but rather for those who sweetened their nihilism with giggles, the kind of guys who would be happy operating a weenie stand in Hell.
Not all of Koontz's literary references are classic; at times, his targets are remarkably topical. He takes a startlingly current shot when Moongirl says she can't wait to read the radical environmentalist treatise, The World Without Us, which was just named as Time's nonfiction book of the year.
Also, Billy's M.O, and philosophical musings are awfully similar to the of killer Anton Chigurh in Cormac MacArthy's No Country for Old Men, which is now a masterful, but spiritually bleak, Coen Brothers film in current release. Unlike Chigurh, Billy, however, has an equally determined good force to oppose him.
Koontz argues passionately for ethical treatment of animals — not for any reason with which PETA's Ingrid Newkirk would identify but one closer to God's charge to Adam in the Garden of Eden. Koontz recognizes a hierarchy of Creation, quite the opposite from Newkirk's "A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy."
And a Golden Retriever is not a chicken. The most horrifying portion of Darkest Evening is Koontz's real-life description of puppy mills where dogs are bred like poultry. Significantly, however, he does not propose a legislative solution but trusts that exposure in the free market will lead to economic boycotts because of Americans' basic decency.
Koontz has written entire novels decrying the Jack Kervorkian school of utilitarian bioethics; but he does note that a merciful death is something a dog owner should know he is on the hook for from the beginning. It's a telling contrast, that the book's most bloodthirsty character is one who wishes she had gotten more prenatal testing so she would have known to abort her inconveniently handicapped child.
Darkest Evening is hardly seamless in how it mixes its ideas and elements (check out Koontz's masterful Life Expectancy for that), but it is generally challenging, never boring and always heartfelt. This is a story of cruelty both casual and deliberate, pursuit, torture, nihilism, depravity — and faith, hope and love.
One could quibble that Koontz introduces a deus ex machina in his resolution — it wouldn't be the first time — but divine intervention is a key component of the story's worldview from almost the start.
But small sticking point also takes place in the last three pages. By that time, any pop fiction consumer will have been thrilled, intellectually provoked and moved in equal measure.