In November, Dean Koontz kicked off a new relationship with a new publisher and did so in a big way. This time he is teaming up with Amazon.com for a series of original short stories and several novels. The stories are now available, and it turns out that they are not independent tales but a sort of Have Gun Will Travel series about a man with no name who has paranormal awareness, a blank for a memory two years before the first story opens and a mission to wipe out the real scum of the earth.
In the Heart of the Fire kicks off the Nameless series, and it serves as a sort of pilot piece. It gives us a heroic character, lets us see how his actions make a difference in a small town, and it gives us plenty of buildup for the coming series as well as some leads to explore in any future “seasons” the author might care to pen.
The opening is poetic and pure Koontz, using some lovely imagery and a careful eye for language to draw readers into this hardboiled tale of good guys and vile ones. The location is Texas, which makes me grin since Trista and I moved to San Antonio almost a decade ago and now currently reside in Houston.
The sky is the blue of a birthing blanket, the day newborn and filled with the light of innocence, when the air brakes of the bus whistle softly, waking him. He has arrived in Worstead, Texas, looking for trouble, on this Friday in June. (location 10)
Although the opening hints at a bus ride to Houston, this is not a strictly East Texas locale. I’d say it’s part of that middle ground between the hill country and the east side, along that stretch of I-10 that belts the state and flows speedily through lots of nothing between San Antonio and Houston. As it turns out, this is a region I know well, having driven it every week for almost one and a half years. Folks expecting desert land or towering mesas would be surprised, it’s a grassy sort of region, dotted with small bodies of water. Low plains, I liked to call it, since that made me a Low Plains Drifter everytime I took the four-hour-ride between H-town and Say-town . . . But I digress.
For this story, our Nameless protagonist (not to be confused with either Bill Pronzini’s Nameless detective or Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, though he draws from similar wellsprings of inspiration that feed into these iconic individuals) has adopted the name Ben Shepherd thanks to a magazine left on the bus, which featured a tale about a wounded-in-the-line-of-duty police animal (German shepherd). He is here to help out a woman who has become the latest target of a serial predator team, consisting of a local sheriff named Soakes and his sadistic but cowardly cohort Harry Carlisle.
The Sheriff is a classic Koontz villain as his first appearance shows.
A sea of emerald grass shimmers on both sides of the highway, and the sky is bigger than the land below, the few early clouds having been burned off by the sun. The emptiness appeals to Sheriff Russel Soakes, as it has since he was a child; from the vast lonely vistas, he infers that there are no boundaries, no rules, that each man and woman is a hunter with hungers to satisfy, and that the satisfaction of them is the only good for which to strive. (location 125)
From a purely sentence level approach, I am intrigued by Koontz’s choice to use landscapes to draw us into these two men’s psyches. Protagonist and antagonist are right there, bared to us through these metaphors. This is neat, and the author is a bit of a magician, performing word tricks to dazzle his readers.
Nobody writes psychopathic narcissists quite the way Koontz does. These are not the more-or-less harmless Vanity Smurfs of the world, content to gaze into a mirror and opine about their loveliness. These people embrace the actual psychosis of Capital-N Narcissism, individuals who see themselves as greater than anyone around them and therefore entitled to just about whatever they want. Sheriff Soakes wants children, girls he can put into a “playpen” and abuse for a time before murdering and disposing of. He has operated out of this particular locale for a while, has become overly confident about his ability to get away with his crimes, and is completely unprepared to have this secret life of his exposed.
Koontz brings all his abilities to bear in this brief novella, but they dazzle in this tightly written tale of a good man with a mysterious past (and a penchant for violent justice) versus absolute evil. As a long time reader, I understand this to be the author’s forte. When his books are good, they are absorbing and often speedy reads that illuminate characters who manifest the courage and decency to square off with the direst of evil doers. Koontz’s love of language and his quirky sense of humor shine through his characters, and his prose offers solid plotting punctuated with occasional tangents and musing on the human race and its foibles. When his books don’t work for me, it is not due to language or style but mostly due to characters or situations that I cannot connect with. I am not the target audience for a book like, say Sole Survivor or Breathless, and I am okay with that. Every now and again, I get the urge to revisit some of my favorite Koontz works (I rather admire the stuff he wrote early on, including a trio of heist books that appeared under his Brian Coffey pseudonym, which long ago fell out of print) or try out one of his newer books. These Nameless novellas fall right into my wheelhouse. Though the first of them is pretty much bereft of the sense of humor or the affinity with absurdity powering books like Ticktock or Life Expectancy, In the Heart of the Fire is a fast paced and gripping thriller. Nameless is an intriguing guy, an enigma with a .45 and some paranormal abilities (that might be the result of some super science). Had Doc Savage creator Lester Dent tackled Jim Thompson’s gut punch of a novel The Killer Inside Me in the first of a new series for Street and Smith (publishers of Doc Savage as well as The Shadow), he might have conceived of a work like this.
While reading, I found myself wondering if Koontz would use these small works as love letters of a sort, tips of the hats to other authors he admires or regards as influential. One of the books has Nameless adopting the name Alan Grofield, which should ring a bell for regular readers of my Considering Westlake reading series, since that is the name of the comedic actor-turned-bank-robber in the works published under Westlake’s meaner pseudonym Richard Stark. There is already a bit of John D. MacDonald in the first book, though not as much Travis McGee as the sensibility behind some of that author’s standalone works. I look forward to seeing what will come next.
And it seems like Koontz has a plan, all right. The book includes some psychic flashes of events that have taken place and might yet take place in the future, events not tied to this particular work. Add to that the mystery of Nameless’s missing past, a time he may well have voluntarily expunged in exchange for working with this shadowy organization bent of delivering justice:
He doesn’t remember his name.
Indeed, he doesn’t remember anything of his past prior to this itinerant life he’s been leading for two years. He knows—a better word is believes—that his amnesia is a medical matter beyond his control, but he senses that it’s also somehow a choice he has made. (location 25)
Leaven these with an overarching format that finds Nameless traveling around the country on missions, and you have plenty of material to see us through a few seasons worth of novella length adventures. I anticipate some fun reads in the subsequent five Nameless novellas and whatever Koontz has up his sleeve for the future. One thing is certain: the author is still having a ball writing the thrillers and adventure stories he has been tackling since his early days (back when he was penning science fiction nightmare stories like the road trip from hell, Flesh in the Furnace). That sense of fun percolates through, delivering entertaining and thoughtful reads. It sounds easy to do, and yet it is anything but easy.
This month we will try something different for a little while. On Sunday, we will take a gander at the second book in the series, Photographing the Dead, which is available in eBook and audiobook editions. Next Thursday, we will continue our Nameless read with the third book, The Praying Mantis Bride.
Koontz, Dean. The Heart of the Fire. Amazon Original Stories: 2019.
“Burn, Baby, Burn: Dean Koontz’s In the Heart of the Fire” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover and quotes taken from the kindle edition.