Velocity

Author: Dean Koontz
Published: 2005

Velocity is the first Dean Koontz novel that I have read, primarily because he writes in a genre I am not particularly fond of. Actually that’s not really true – I like a good thriller, but I am a pretty squeamish kind of guy, and Koontz (or so the book blurbs would imply) has a tendency to delve into the darker and more horrific sides of human nature. Having said that, I must admit I really enjoyed Velocity. I couldn’t put it down, turning the pages into the wee small hours of the morning.

Previously, in other posts I have mentioned that I don’t like serial killer books (mostly in posts where I have reviewed a serial killer book – funny about that!). So with that knowledge you’re probably wondering why or how I came to read Velocity at all. It was pure chance. When buying another book, the store I was in was having a promotion – and I was able to select another book for free from a shelf in the store. This shelf was poorly stocked for male readers. There were quite a few ‘chic-lit’ novels, but about two that would appeal to guys like me – one of them was a reprint of Casino Royale – and those who know me, can be assured that I already have in excess of ten copies of CR, with various covers already scattered throughout the house. The other was Velocity.

Many regular visitors here may also know – that apart from being squeamish –  I dabble in graphic design, and as such, over the years have been known to comment on cover artwork, on things that ‘work’ and things that definitely ‘don’t work’. The thing here to remember is that ‘graphic design’ and ‘marketing’ are two very different disciplines, and while a book cover may be well designed, it does not necessarily follow that it reflects the nature of the story – or perhaps more importantly, sell copies of the book.

The paperback edition of Velocity that I picked up (you can see the cover at the top of this post), is what I’d consider a lazy and messy design. But as a marketing tool, it is incredibly strong – but first to help explain what I mean, maybe it’s time I had a quick look at the story.

The story concerns Billy Wiles who works as a bartender in the Napa Valley. Billy is an amiable enough guy, but over the years he has suffered a few hardships and setbacks. These days he keeps pretty much to himself. One evening, after finishing his shift at the bar, in the carpark, tucked under his windscreen wiper, he finds as note. Paraphrased it says:

‘If you don’t take this note to the police, I will KILL a lovely blonde schoolteacher somewhere in Napa County

……………………………………………………………………………………..

If you do take this note to the police, I will instead KILL an elderly woman.

You have six hours to decide. The choice is yours’

It’s a beautiful setup. Even by not acting, and ignoring the note, Billy is making a choice. He is a part of the game – with a madman – regardless if he likes it or not.

But briefly, back to the cover art – the words from the note are depicted on the cover. Now graphically, it is not high art – it is quite messy. But from a marketing point of view, without having read a page, simply picking the book up, I really wanted to know which decision Billy was going to make and why? Simply,  I had to buy this book. There were questions that needed to be answered.

That note is really the whole setup to the story. Like it or not, Billy is drawn into a cat and mouse game against a serial killer who appears to know Billy’s moves one step before Billy even knows them.

The central conceit of the book, to make the story work, is that Billy as a fourteen-year-old boy was seriously mistreated by the head police officer in Napa County, John Palmer. While Palmer is only in the story for a few pages, his spectral presence colours every move that Billy makes. Which sort of rules out the old ‘why don’t you just go to the police’ scenario. The thing here, is Koontz tells his story with such pace, while reading the story, you actually don’t question the logic and  trust and go with the character of Billy.

The story is very well written within the narrow scope that Koontz has chosen to place his story in. Everything is through Billy’s eyes, while this helps in understanding Billy’s perspective, it does leave the other characters motivations rather thin.

It also hides the killer to the very end of the book, which works in the context of the story, but with barely any real interaction from the killer, the story lacks a certain menace. What I am clumsily alluding to is that the story lacks a villain that truly scares the pants of you. I know some people suggest that the ‘theatre of the mind’ is much scarier than what is shown or told, but I tend to believe that a hero is only as good as the villain that he is pitted against – and with the limited interaction between the main protagonists, the story does lack a certain edge.

Having said all that – rather than a serial killer thriller chiller – as a fast paced, page turning psycho drama, Velocity is top-notch. Koontz sets up the boundaries and the stories conceits early, and then just runs with them for all they are worth, and the end result is damn readable – so much so, that despite my nature, I will make an effort to seek out and read more of his work. It ain’t high art – but on a cold winter’s night, it’s a good excuse to lie in bed with the doona pulled around you, and be transported to another place – just for a few hours (or if you’re like me, well into the morning).

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