Saturday, March 19, 2011

Anatomy of a good read

MR. MURDER took me where I thought I’d never go.

Dean Koontz’s novel pits a mystery writer with a successful career and happy family life against a professional assassin who is also a madman.

After I finished this book recently, I posted on Goodreads: “Wow. I had to make myself read this after a friend suggested I might find it interesting to study the way Dean Koontz alternated POVs, including the antagonist's viewpoint. Usually, I don't read psychological thrillers, because I'm a wimp and get too scared. This book captivated me with riveting story, clean prose and wonderful characterizations. It also surprised me a number of times. Excellent storytelling, and I'm so glad I got over my scaredy-catness and read it. And I have to agree that he handled POV switches masterfully and to great effect.”

I’m writing in alternating POVs in my WIP, a fractured fairy tale, switching at times to the antagonist. My villain is twisted and unpredictable, and I’m having a great time creating her, adding as much depth to her as to my protagonist.

Reading MR. MURDER now (published 18 years ago) is perfect timing for me. His antagonist is so twisted and frightening, but I grew to understand what made him tick through Koontz’s carefully-built character arc. This was the best part of reading this book for me as I study how Koontz made the story more chilling by letting us walk in the killer’s shoes and see through his eyes.

We learn just enough in the first scenes to be scared of this man who carries fake identification, a pistol with a silencer and admits to having holes in his memory. He dispassionately sizes up women he might have sex with and then kill, as long as he draws no attention to himself or messes up his scheduled assassinations. Everything he does is planned, calculated, and apparently orchestrated by some handler he can’t remember. He doesn’t know his real name or family.

He feels empty, as Koontz writes, “He feels as if he is a hollow man, made of the thinnest glass, fragile, only slightly more substantial than a ghost.”

All this before the reader is 30 pages in. Then the killer goes renegade, pulled by some destiny to find a life. “I need to be someone,” he says.

Because I don’t like to give spoilers, that’s all I’m going to say about a story that gallops headlong into terrifying territory. I strongly suggest reading the book if you haven’t and are interested in writing a great antagonist.

As for overall viewpoint, I’m one of those readers who must have clean POV changes or I’m booted out of story. I like the viewpoint switches to occur by chapter or by scenes separated by breaks and with action anchoring the reader in the new character’s perspective. There are very few authors skillful enough to do it within scenes, Neil Gaiman being one of them.

Koontz used multiple POVs in MR. MURDER. He did it with scene breaks, and the opening lines of each scene made it clear which person was thinking. I never questioned where I was or why I was there. That’s another key issue—the reason to switch heads is to convey information or perspective that can’t be gotten another way and is important to the story arc. It should add depth, not just words.

Dissecting Koontz’s viewpoint changes, the opening lines if each break include the following (this is not verbatim, just partial lines)
1(protagonist)—Martin Stillwater suddenly realized he was repeating the same two words in a dreamy whisper. . . “I need. . . I need. . .I need. . .”
2(antagonist)—The killer’s flight from Boston arrives on time. . .At the rental agency counter he discovers that his reservation has not been misplaced or misrecorded, as often happens. . .Everything seems to be going his way.
3(protagonist’s child)—Daddy wasn’t Daddy.
4(antagonist)—Like a shark cruising cold currents in a night sea, the killer drives. This is his first time in Kansas City, but he knows the streets.
5(protagonist)—While the girls were upstairs, brushing their teeth and preparing for bed, Marty methodically went from room to room on the first floor, making sure all the doors and windows were locked.

This book is too wickedly good to give away the plot, so I don’t want to go into who the killer really is or what happens to the family. But here is a snippet I loved as a writer:

He said, “You and I were passing the time with novels, so were some other people, not just to escape but because. . .because, at its best, fiction is medicine.”
“Life is so damned disorderly, things just happen, and there doesn’t seem any point to so much of what we go through. Sometimes it seems the world’s a madhouse. Storytelling condenses life, gives it order. Stories have beginnings, middles, ends. And when a story is over, it meant something, by God, maybe not something complex, maybe what it had to say was simple, even naïve, but there is meaning. And that gives us hope, it’s a medicine.”
I hope this is useful to other writers, or readers. I was fascinated.
I may or may not have Internet access this coming week, so if I don't respond to comments, that's why. Have a great week, everyone.


Stephanie Thornton said...

Have you read Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn? It does a great job of switching POV's, plus it's a great story.

Of course, I'm also biased because it's historical fiction. But it's really, really good!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Stephanie: I haven't read Mistress of Rome, but I'll check it out. Thanks for the rec.

The Words Crafter said...

I love this book!!!! I read it when it came out; I feel old now that you've mentioned how long ago that was :)

I always get lost in the story; I've tried to pay attention to stuff like that....but it never works.

You should check out Watchers. It has a wonderful example of how to cause a 'bad guy' to be viewed with compassion.

Have a great weekend! And I'm so glad you found Mr. Murder :)

Suzanne Casamento said...

Ooo! I'm going to read that book! I started a work in multiple POV's this fall and sort of set it aside. Maybe this book will give me the inspiration I need!

Faith Pray said...

Mr. Murder sounds fascinating, but I have to say the blurb about your WIP was even more tantalizing. It made me want to hear more, and hear from your twisted villain!

Maria Cisneros Toth Blog said...

It's been 16 years since I read Mr. Murder. Your Anatomy of a good read sent me to our spare room where my fingers fumbled over books kept on the closet shelf in the dark. "Where is it?" Finally, I grabbed my ghosty flashlight and shined it at the row of books. Ah, ha! There it was. I cracked open the cover and read Dean Kootz's autograph, "To the Toth Family, May you never meet your evil twins!" Oh, yeah... I know what I'll be reading this week! Great post! I love your villain in your fairytale. She's wickedly delicious! And the POV switch works. It's fun getting into another character's head. As I read Mr. Murder this time around, I'll be paying close attention to how he does this.

Bish Denham said...

Sounds like a good one, even though, like you, I'm reluctant when it comes to psychological thrillers.

Lately my reads have jumped awkwardly from POV to POV to the point where I've put them down. And I have this story see that needs more than one POV, so Mr. Murder sound like a book I should read.

Liza said...

Like you, I am scared to read thrillers. I picked up a Dean Kuntz years ago before I knew what kind of writer he was. I could not put it down, but chose not to read others. Sounds like I better reconsider.

Donna said...

Thanks, Tricia. It pays to venture into unfamiliar ground. I used to read Dean Koontz. 'Sounds like I should take a look at this title.

Char said...

i haven't read any of his in a while - he scares the bejeezus outta me

Jemi Fraser said...

I'm WAY too much of a coward to read his stuff! Sounds like he's a master of multiple pov. I LOVE writing from 2 or 3 pov so I should probably read this ... but I'm pretty sure I won't! :) said...

Thanks Tricia. I always get something helpful/interesting/fun out of your blog.

Phoenix said...

I love, love, LOVE Dean Koontz. He was a friend of my 4th grade teacher's so she would started me off young by reading "Santa's Evil Twin" to my 4th Grade class and I've been hooked ever since. He writes such fantastic novels, with such strong characters!

For an even cooler POV book, read Koontz's "Dragon Tears" - there are chapters that are narrated by a dog! lol Gotta love it!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

EVERYBODY!!! I love all these comments. I am indeed without Internet and just got on at library for a little bit, so I want to let you know how much I appreciate this.

I'm going to try to respond to you all in the near future, but for now a big thanks. :D

Carolina M. Valdez Schneider said...

I've never read him, but clearly I'm missing out! Although I'm terrified to read the really scary stuff. That stuff just haunts me forever! Lovely Bones kept me awake for a long time. But how awesome you got so much out of this book. Alternating POVs is really difficult to pull off successfully.

Sarah Laurence said...

Your Goodreads review made me laugh because I also avoid really scary books, but I could see making an exception for good writing. As another with a WIP with alternating POV, this was helpful to read. #5 is chilling and I enjoyed that story excerpt.

LynNerdKelley said...

Oooooooh, Tricia, your post and all these comments are so good, but then the comments about how scary his stuff is makes me think twice. The Lovely Bones really got to me, and I can't watch the movie. Sounds like Mr. Murder is such a good book, but I'd probably have nightmares.

Maria, so cool that you got his autograph!

Lisa Gail Green said...

Wow! That's an awesome quote at the end there. Makes me want to read the book. :D Your book sounds pretty interesting too...

Julie Dao said...

I've heard of Dean Koontz but have never read anything of his. I like to pretend I'm not into suspense/horror/mystery but I totally am, and I'm definitely going to give this a try. Thanks for the thorough review!

Anonymous said...

I used to read a lot of Koontz in high school and college.

I have a few more of his books. I might have this one.

This would be good to read as both a reader and writer. Some books with multiple POVs are confusing. This one seems to have smooth transitions.

Lydia Kang said...

Yes, books are totally medicine! I agree wholeheartedly.

Thanks for talking about this book. I didn't know much about it, but it sounds like something I could read now that we've been introduced.

Paul C said...

A poignant review of a popular author. Most interesting.

Angela Ackerman said...

I used to read Koontz religiously, but then stopped about ten years back when I got into YA reading. I loved so many of his books--I should look for this one.

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Carol J. Amato said...

Super article, Pat! I'm so glad you enjoyed Mr. Murder so much. I knew you would find it fascinating and relevant to your WIP. Can't wait to hear more of your book!

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Dean Koontz has some amazing novels, but I haven't read this one. I will now! : ) His Odd Thomas books are fabulous and I loved THE WATCHERS. Thanks for this!