Under all the shades of gray, everything is black and white, Mitch.
The popularity of Dean Koontz, whose newest thriller, The Husband, is currently on top of the New York Times best-seller list, rests on two guarantees: the Koontz protagonist, always an ordinary person, wounded by life, and usually burdened with a bad childhood will be unusually easy to identify with, while the Koontz villain will be so impregnably vain, so intricate in his self-justification, and so nearly omnipotent that you won’t be able to resist viscerally hating him. His serial killers are free from all human qualities, and unlike, say, Hannibal Lecter, they’re never allowed to be even superficially charming or magnetic. This has resulted in some effective thrillers, and readers respond to the catharsis of finally getting to see these monsters get what’s coming to them. But with every book, Koontz becomes more and more of a moralist, directing with a heavy hand how his thrillers are interpreted. The Husband is really just a parable, and its message is stark: evil must be spelled with a capital E, the world is black and white, and any conception of psychological cause and effect is just muddying the waters. Pushing this message is Koontz’s only real concern here, and he forgets—for the most part—to be entertaining.
The Husband here is Mitch Rafferty, a landscaper happily at work in a flowerbed when he gets a call from his wife, Holly. She’s been abducted, and her kidnappers demand a two million dollar ransom. Just an ordinary guy, Mitch doesn’t have that kind of money. But the kidnappers know how he can get it, and Mitch is directed towards an unimaginably seamy international underworld—one he’d previously never considered, that is closely and scarily connected to his own life.
Mitch loves Holly. He wants nothing more than to live with her, and raise a family, in seclusion behind their rose-entwined white picket fence. What kind of people would get in the way of a dream like that? Koontz knows, although he thinks his readers may need reminding. The primary character arc in The Husband is Mitch’s awakening awareness of, as Koontz variously puts it, “Evil with an uppercase E,” and “unalloyed evil,” and, most alarmingly, “evil of a purity ... that he had been educated to deny existed.” Mitch has been raised according to mod parenting techniques by behavioral psychologist parents, who have ruthlessly trained him to believe that evil is a mere superstition. Mitch’s parents stand in for what Koontz perceives as elite opinion; they are, of course, tortured to death about halfway through. The rest of the novel is a similar over-response to moral relativism.
For all his grandstanding, Koontz shies away from any definition of the nature of evil. Most of the bad guys here aren’t even rudimentarily developed, and die before speaking more than a few lines. Of the two who are developed, the chief kidnapper and his criminal rival, neither, Koontz insists, are motivated by greed. It’s similar to the way he’s insisted in earlier novels that his serial killers had pleasant, trauma-free childhoods. There, it seemed like Koontz was rebelling against a cliché, but in The Husband, something weirder is happening.
So, if these baddies are not driven by greed, what has pushed them towards a life of crime? You might suppose that they’re crazy, especially after reading the darkly cryptic gibberish that Koontz gives them to speak. But no: “Some might call this madness, but Mitch knew its real name.” Koontz never comes out and says it, but he appears to believe that the evil are evil at an atomic level, and born that way. Which seems even more twisted when Mitch realizes, further on, that while a crazy man deserves compassion, “an evil man was owed nothing more or less than ... the fury of a righteous justice.” Mitch and Holly are revolted at the touch of these evil men, and killing them, they feel nothing, neither remorse nor pleasure.
I’m not sure what response, exactly, Koontz expects from his readers. After you demand that evil be given an uppercase E, what do you do next, agitate for a more Gothic font? Nevertheless, he demands the capitalization frothily, on every page, and with every motion of his story. There’s certainly nothing wrong with depicting pure evil in literature, especially in this type of psychological horror. But The Husband really isn’t literature at even a low-grade, it’s shoddily conceived evangelism.