Dean Koontz is a master, and Ashley Bell (Bantam, December 2015, ISBN 978-0345545961) is a modern masterpiece of suspense.
It’s obvious that Koontz, always the consummate craftsman, studied the great writers that came before him to discover what worked and what didn’t work in fiction. Today’s writers need to study Koontz.
Dean’s imaginative stories always center around mysteries the reader and protagonist must solve. Bibi Blair is a 22-year-old writer whose go-with-the-flow surfer dude and dudette California parents “go through life failing to see all sorts of amazing things because they aren’t expecting to see them.” They take the world “as is”. Bibi, however, believes in taking the world by its horns and bending it to her will. For Bibi, life is a challenge. So, too, is death.
Mystery piles upon mystery as Bibi recalls events from her childhood and ill-fated college experience. Koontz loves to pull the rug out from beneath his characters (and readers), leaving them dazed. Just when everything seems to be fine again, something else happens. Coincidence piles upon coincidence. But there are no coincidences—only design and premeditation—in a Koontz novel.
Koontz keeps the paragraphs, like the chapters, short. This make reading easier, especially in e-books. Dean seldom uses flowery imagery, preferring the plain and simple language ordinary people feel most comfortable with. Oh, there are indeed plenty of similes and metaphors in a Koontz tale. But when Dean occasionally uses big words, as he sometimes but only rarely does, he doesn’t expect the reader to run to the dictionary to look the word up. He shows, doesn’t merely tell, what those big words mean.
In Ashley Bell, Koontz introduces readers to the meaning of astragalomancy and scrabblemancy, as well as to caracals and night soil. He also explains the meaning of “butt-hole spiders”.
Dean also uses his share of alliteration, although subtly and sparingly enough so alliteration seems neither obsessive nor intrusive. It’s evident that Dean Koontz cares about his readers. He wants readers engulfed in the story, not in the words themselves.
To move the storyline along quickly, Koontz provides alternate POVs with every new chapter or dream-like flashbacks to Bibi’s childhood and college years. Paxton Thorp, Bibi’s fiance, is a Navy SEAL on a blackout mission in the Middle East. Paxton is kept incommunicado—off the grid—while he and his SEAL team assassinate a known terrorist. Paxton has no clue what has happened to Bibi—other than the feeling that Bibi is in trouble—until he returns to the real world.
Koontz mesmerizes readers, puts them into hypnotic trances via subliminal suggestions. Like a master magician, Dean Koontz distracts readers’ attention while working his magic. Is anything as it seems? What’s real? And what isn’t?
As Pogo says about his Honda: “Wouldn’t be fun if it looked like what it was.”
No spoilers for you dear reader. If you want to learn what happens to Bibi Blair and Ashley Bell, you need to surf the novel itself. Just beware: imagination can get the better of you if you let it.
Take it from me, Ashley Bell is worth the read.