Book Review: The Silent Corner by Dean Koontz

The Silent Corner by Dean Koontz
The Silent Corner
by Dean Koontz
Bantam, 2017

The Silent Corner is Dean Koontz’s version of a hard-boiled detective thriller: an off-the-books FBI detective on a personal mission, a rash of mysterious suicides, a cabal of men wielding a genuinely terrifying new technology. As always, Koontz renders his characters ably and the plot is perfectly paced. This is a tense, taut, and foreboding novel to kick off a new series.

I didn’t enjoy it at all.

There are two reasons why I didn’t enjoy this book. The first problem I have is his writing style.

I’ve been a fan of Mr. Koontz since I read through most of his classic works, what I refer to as his Watchers era. Dark Rivers of the Heart blew me away when I read it in college. His writing style in those days was robust and tight, concise and economical. He rarely engaged in literary ornamentation.

In more recent years, his writing style has changed: he’s gotten much wordier, more self-indulgent and self-consciously literary, more prone to using ornamental words where simpler ones would suffice.

There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s merely a different style. I respect that his writing style evolved and he remains a masterful storyteller. Still, I miss the precision and restraint of his older works.

His sentence structure has become more complex, as well. He writes with more clauses, arranged in more complicated ways, with liberal use of commas to keep everything in order. His writing has become notably more convoluted.

And it’s a problem: this kind of self-consciously literary style interferes with the pace of the plot in The Silent Corner—indulgent language and complex sentences are at odds with the quick momentum. The story beats are perfectly paced but there are sections which feel like they’re dragging because the writing style trips me up. It’s jarring. It doesn’t work for a thriller novel.

A more economical style asserts itself toward the end, as the plot builds to the concluding crisis and climax. Sentences get shorter, tighter, there are fewer show-off words. The last fifty pages or so are the only section in the entire book where the language swept me along in pace with the story.

I couldn’t get into a comfortable flow with the text for most of the novel. It should have taken me two or three days to read—instead it took me six. For all the rewards of the story and the characters, actually reading this book was unexpectedly frustrating.

My other problem with this book is personal. What I want to address now isn’t an objective criticism of Mr. Koontz’s writing but it’s something I couldn’t get past:

There’s an explicitly judgmental vein running through this work that I don’t recall encountering in his books before. Commentary which serves no purpose for character or plot, merely Mr. Koontz editorializing on various aspects of the world. It’s any author’s right to offer judgment regarding the world around them but the commentary in this book is shallow and dismissive.

It’s alienating. Quite a lot of it is highly polarizing, too.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, I’ll detail a relatively harmless, non-polarizing example:

There’s a scene about two-thirds of the way through where the main character visits a veterinarian’s office. Mr. Koontz makes a point of describing the Kandinsky art prints on the wall: specifically, he describes them as “fashion—rather than fine—art” and later goes out of his way to label the shapes depicted in these works as “meaningless.” These are throwaway lines which offer no substantive argument to support his opinion.

It’s perfectly fine if Mr. Koontz doesn’t like Kandinsky but he’s wrong on both counts. Kandinsky’s work contains deep meaning, regardless of whether Mr. Koontz understands it. Fine art isn’t a matter of personal opinion but consensus and historical importance, and it’s widely agreed that Kandinsky qualifies. Just because Mr. Koontz doesn’t like it doesn’t make it any less influential or important. To deny any meaning or value in the work just makes him sound ignorant and petty.

Worse: Adding Kandinsky prints to the scene adds nothing meaningful to the plot. His ill-informed critiques of them aren’t presented as a character’s opinion so they play no role in character development. He hung Kandinskys on the wall for no other reason than to give himself an excuse to make these snarky comments.

It serves no purpose for the story. It’s unnecessary and distracting, and shows an inexplicable disregard for the needs of his own work.

There are several such unnecessary, throwaway editorializations throughout the novel, and several of them display a disturbing lack of regard for some of the deepest and most complex problems we face in our society today. He applies this same shallow, easy dismissiveness to the rise of conflicts between communities and law enforcement, and to the culture of political correctness. He discounts any possibility of legitimacy for those with whom he disagrees on these issues, and he displays no understanding of their opposing positions. He evinces utterly no curiosity as to why other people might feel differently than he does. He just dismisses them out-of-hand.

It’s as though his empathy exhausts itself with his individual characters and can’t be extended to larger groups of actual people with actual grievances in the real world.

Applied to works of modern art, this all comes across as needlessly judgmental: harmless but still a bit alienating. Applied to real and significant social issues, it’s reactionary, intellectually calcified, and needlessly confrontational. These throwaway editorializations are all black and white, there’s no nuance, no awareness of the complex reality of the issues. It appears as though Mr. Koontz has lost his ability to cope with nuance and complexity. It’s clear, too, that he has no interest in conducting a substantive exploration of these issues—he just wants to complain.

It’s a problem. It tells me he doesn’t understand what’s happening in the world today and worse—he has no desire to try to understand it. For all his desire to make this commentary topical, it only makes the novel feel irrelevant.

Maybe Mr. Koontz wanted to adopt a tough-as-nails tone for his version of a hard-boiled detective thriller. Maybe these aren’t his own personal beliefs on display. I hope so but that’s not how it read to me. To me, he reads like a crabby old man who doesn’t understand the world anymore and who can no longer be bothered to try.

The story in The Silent Corner is excellent: the conflict is massive and terrifying in its implications, the characters are believable and compelling, the action is satisfying. It’s a fantastic set up for a new series. I should have enjoyed this book tremendously. I wanted to enjoy it.

Instead, reading it felt like witnessing the intellectual decline of a favorite uncle—once sharp and curious, now befuddled and peevish. It makes me sad.

I think this is the last I’ll read from Mr. Koontz. I’m sure he won’t be at all sad to see me go.

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