Watchers by Dean Koontz

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Rating 7.0/10
E = NT = 2 nice

One thing I notice when I read other people’s book reviews, is that there is so much polarisation. For every review where the reviewer carefully notes what they thought was good or bad in a book and gives a considered opinion, there are usually ten others that declare a book is the best thing ever! Or the worst thing ever! With some books this very polarisation becomes polarised, and reviews are either so effusive in their praise they border on the embarrassing, or cynical rants full of vicious vitriol. Such is the case with Watchers, on the very same page of Goodreads Koontz is both called a visionary by one reviewer and compared to Adolf Hitler by another; yes really!

Since I myself had a more generally ambivalent view of Watchers, and personally think the only thing Koontz and Hitler have in common is a liking for dogs, I hope to offer at least a somewhat saner perspective on the book, which, like all books, had both its good and bad aspects.

The story begins with ex Delta force and estate agent Travis Cornel on a trip into the California Mountains trying to find a lost zest for life he once had. Unexpectedly, he finds a hyper intelligent golden retriever whom he names Einstein who is on the run both from the governmental laboratory where he was created, and from the Outsider, a vicious genetically engineered killing machine. Cornel’s meeting with Einstein will bring him into contact both with Nora Devin, an agoraphobic artist being menaced by a sexual predator, and Vincent Nasco, a mafia hitman hired to murder the scientists responsible for Einstein’s creation, bringing Travis danger, romance and friendship greater than he could’ve imagined.

One thing which most of the less complementary (and often coprolitic) commentators of Koontz I’ve seen apparently miss is that the nuts and bolts of Koontz writing style do work exceptionally well. When detailing character experience or crafting actual scenes he’s able to progress at a methodical pace which is at the same time compelling, detailing nods of atmosphere and occasional bits of horror. Indeed, to say that Koontz rarely ever obscures details, the portrait he paints both of Vince Nasco’s psychotic belief that he absorbs the lives of those he kills, and the tragic yet vicious outsider’s hatred of all things human, plus one particular canine is masterful. Indeed this is the first Koontz book I have read where all the action does not take place in one short space and time and for the most part he handled the multiple plots and perspectives well.

I particularly appreciated that Lemuel Jonson, the NSA agent trying to track down both Einstein and the Outsider, and his foil Sheriff Walt Gaines are sympathetic characters a long way from the sinister government authorities you might expect.

The crowning achievement in character terms of course and the one the plot revolves around is Einstein himself. In Midnight I noted how Koontz was able to give a dog a real personality, here he goes one step further, imagining a dog who does not just occasionally act in a human way, but who actually possesses human intelligence, leading to both some charmingly alien scenes of Travis and Nora working out how to communicate with Einstein, and some wonderfully, observant canine scenes of Einstein’s behaviour purely as a dog, scenes which were definitely recognizable to me from my own furry thing.

Suffice it to say, if you’re not a dog lover, Watchers purely and simply won’t appeal to you, whereas I imagine there are few dog lovers who have not considered (as C S Lewis did), what it might be like if dogs remained very much dogs but possessed the faculties of speech and reason.

Contrasted against Einstein, we have the Outsider, which, (despite it’s rather over-the-top horror name), is a surprisingly understandable antagonist, particularly since like the most famous monster of them all, the creation of Victor Frankenstein, it is both pitiful, and pitiless.

Vince Nasco was also a rather entertaining villain. While the murders he carries out are undoubtedly nasty, and the bald no nonsense way Koontz describes them just add to the effect, especially since his belief in his own inherent immortality is so unshakable that the reader starts to believe it as well after a while. Some of Nasco’s scenes also concern the mob, and here Koontz was obviously having fun. Though to an extent seeing people with names like “Johnny the Wire”, and discussions of “the code”, was definitely heading into parody territory, at the same time, these gave the Nasco sections a wonderful touch of macabre black humour, especially since you often didn’t know when all this talk of “the family business” would suddenly turn into a display of extreme violence. While I admit that I was a little confused as to Nasco’s motivation, going from working for the evil Soviets (this was the eighties, it was always the evil Soviets), to following a trail through his mob contacts to hunting down Einstein for prophet, at the same time I was more than happy to run along with him.

Unfortunately, with the two principle characters, Koontz was a little less successful. Both Travis and Nora are likable certainly, and in terms of banter and actions what they do is generally sweet, especially when interacting with Einstein or just being together. Unfortunately, I often found my sense of them as likable struggling with two weaknesses of Koontz writing I’ve noticed previously, his tendency to archetypal and somewhat stereotyped characters, and his habit of using sympathetic characters to preach directly to the reader.

Travis, despite a seemingly inexhaustible supply of money, has lost his love of life due to his belief that anyone he gets close to dies. This again we know since Travis and character and Koontz as narrator tell us so. Despite this, he always seemed a pleasant person, ready to make friends with anyone from a super intelligent dog to a friendly vet. Never once, despite this often mentioned “jinks” did Travis’ issue actually cause him problems or affect his behaviour towards others, something which is doubly surprising given Travis (likely for purposes of fulfilling mail character rolls), was also an ex Delta force member who’d seen all his friends die and been invalided out of the armed forces, PTSD obviously being something that happens to other people. Indeed, the one occasion when his banter seemed a bit spikier than the usual pleasantries, it all turned out to be an effort to spur Einstein to communicate; something which again is simply explained to us straight out.

Nora’s case was even worse. A literal modern day Rapunzel who’d been bought up by her evil aunt Violet to hate men and fear the outside world, who then becomes prey to a highly unpleasant stalker. That someone with Nora’s history both has no idea how to deal with such unwanted attention, or becomes the target of it at all is not surprising, that big manly Travis (ably assisted by a seemingly random psychic impulse from Einstein), steps in to rescue the fair damsel however is less forgivable.

From that point, we are treated to repeated sermons on the theme of Nora’s new found positivity, indeed her change from scared shut in to endlessly peppy romantic partner with zero ill effects was so abrupt it almost seemed Nora had become a completely different person. Koontz even forgot that he’d described Nora as a mousy, unattractive girl originally, since after her transformation everyone, including the supposedly asexual psychopath proclaims how beautiful she is.

Of course, conventional characters and running through archetypes is not always necessarily a problem if an author can then use twists of plotting or shear descriptive talent to make the characters work. This Koontz does to some extent, since there is no denying Travis, Nora and especially Einstein are more than likable characters, although I do wish Koontz had spent more time showing they were likable characters and less explaining to us how likable they were, since there were undoubtedly points where the cuteness became cloying.

Speaking of explaining to the reader, Here is where we run into another problem of Koontz writing, that of preaching. Repeatedly, Koontz tells us straight out about character motivation, simply explaining what characters feel. This goes both in terms of telling us how good Nora and Travis are and how wonderful a time they’re having, and in terms of general sermons about life and other matters, from the evils of strip clubs to the scientific miracle of Einstein’s creation. Indeed, often I really wished Koontz would stop telling us about Einstein and just let Einstein (and to an extent his other characters), be themselves, since seeing a hyper intelligent dog work out how to spell words and use humour is much more interesting than a long debate on how humans have emulated god in creating life and so have responsibility.

These positive pontifications, like Nasco’s work for the unseen and evil Soviet Union, Einstein’s adoration of Mickey Mouse cartoons or Nora’s rather fairy tale damselity, is another sense sin which Watchers feels severely dated, since reading Koontz discourses now about how technology and freedom of information would create greater freedom and equality across the world is rather depressing, though not of course for any fault on the author’s part in this case.

Negative points aside, for the most part the plot moved along well, and each time I found myself getting a little overly bogged down in discourses about niceness, there was usually a plot point, a murder, a sighting of the outsider or a bit of witty banter that reminded me to take notice.

I do wish Koontz had checked his science a little better, indeed one section in which he notes that “intelligence is a dominant trait” so asserts that Einstein’s high intellect would be passed on to any puppies he had would also be intelligent made me actively wince. That being said I don’t always need my science fiction to be of the hard sort, and mostly I was happy enough to run with the idea of an intelligent dog, an idea which Koontz executes extremely well.

Unfortunately, in the book’s latter half matters did start to drag, indeed I rather wondered why Koontz drew things out as much as he did, though I did like the way he setup a rather blatant cliché, threatened to follow it on several occasions and ultimately refused to.

I also appreciate that since canine diseases do play a large part in the later section of the book, things might not be to everyone’s interest, though in my case it just made me glad our own dog’s vaccinations are up to date.

One other reason the latter part of the book felt slower, was that it also tended to involve more generalised preaching, in one case to the detriment of another likable character. While the significance of the title “watchers” is a matter I can appreciate in principle, there’s no denying I did not particularly enjoy Koontz explaining that principle to me at the lengths, or with the fervency he did.

One aspect of the climax was extremely well done, another a severe disappointment. Vince Nasco, despite being quite a legitimate threat for most of the book, suddenly started making stupid mistakes, not the least of which was a sudden urge to monologue to Nora about all his dastardly plans, apparently just because she was so amazingly pretty. He then completely forgot all his scary hitman skills and was dispatched with surprising ease.

That being said, the final conclusion of the Outsider’s plot was pathetic in both senses of the word, both pitiable and emotionally charged, although I do wish Koontz description had been a little less effusive. I was also slightly sad that Lem and Walt’s plotlines didn’t connect up with the rest of the cast until the very end, and while an unfortunately drawn out journey in getting there made the rather ironic punch less effective than it might have been, I did appreciate it when I had some time to think about it.

All in all Watchers was not a terrible book. Certainly it does not deserve the scorn heaped upon it from some quarters; neither however does it deserve the incandescent praise from others. To an extent my lady’s and my different takes on Watchers might give an idea of the strengths of the book, since while it reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s small world parody “wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was nice,” it’s one of my lady’s favourite Koontz books.

Perhaps this is just a reflection of our respective ability to stomach preaching and archetypes, or just a demonstration of my pessimistic English stiff-upper-lipness as opposed to Mrs. Dark’s American effusiveness. Nevertheless, I would still cautiously recommend the book, provided you understand what you’re getting into, especially if you’re a lover of furry things.

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