The City starts with an intriguing proposition: The soul of a city has decided to take human form and go around trying to help people. Specifically, its trying to stop a serial killer by showing prescient dreams to a little boy. You, the reader, don’t know this at first. You only know what our young protagonist, Jonah, in the form of a first-person memoir, chooses to tell you.
It’s a typical Dean Koontz novel, in that it has all his trademarks: dreamlike out-of-body moments by its main character, an evil serial-killer villain with seemingly supernatural powers, a shocking death of a beloved character, and of course, an heroic dog. What makes this book stand out from all his others is the secondary characters. A typical book has its main character, its bad guys, and then any secondary or ancillary characters are there merely to further the plot – to provide information or emotional context in which the main characters develop. In The City, the more interesting characters are the secondary characters, the cast around which our young hero and the serial killer revolve.
None of this is obvious at first. You think you’re just getting a story with our hero being a little kid. You might even think its a badly written book, boring, as there’s a lot of scenes that seem pointless. Why these moments at the community center, playing piano? Nothing is happening, geez, get with the story. The significance only becomes clear much later, even as late as the last few page of the book, when Mr. Yoshioka reveals he was secretly following and had a spiritual awakening while furtively listening.
Perhaps a comparison to another book will help: Remember Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird? He’s the one you remember, not the young hero. I think Dean Koontz has stole a page out of Harper Lee’s book, so to speak, by telling a story that is really about the secondary characters – the regular, ordinary lives of a city and their day-to-day struggles. Hence the title, The City.
It’s not a new idea – Les Miserables did it long ago – but Dean Koontz manages to strike the right balance between tawdry and romantic. It’s not the actions, or even the people, but the person. The single mom singing at a nightclub, the taxi driver dreaming of a better life, even the paranoid janitor who teams up with the serial killer, they come alive.
This is another thing I found unique in The City, at least for a Dean Koontz book, is the bad guys are not wholly evil. Dean Koontz typically writes about evil like no other, and as part of his craft, his bad guys are truly despicable people. They bring a chill to you just being around them. In The City, there is the one serial killer, but he’s not the one Koontz writes about. You don’t get to hear his story directly. Instead you get the story of his ‘minions’ – the two or three other lowlifes that have taken up the same cause as the serial killer. The crafty girl who is just angry at the world. The deadbeat dad who at the end turns out to be just a confused man who thought he was doing the right thing.
This character portrayal turns The City into a sort of mystery novel. It’s backwards from the typical mystery. Usually mystery starts with a crime and you have to figure out who is the bad guy. Here they start with a bad guy and an apocryphal dream, and you have to figure out what the crime is.
In The City, something has changed in Dean Koontz’s writing. There is a message of hope. Its still got the trademark horror touch with the shocking killing, but on the whole this is a cheerful novel, a novel about good triumphing evil, not just one good guy winning the day.
It’s also literary. There are layers to it, and I’m actually going to go back and re-read it, something I rarely do, because there were scenes I didn’t understand the significance of until the end of the book.