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Published: Sunday, 7/20/2003

Koontz goes overboard, but his fans won't mind


THE FACE. By Dean Koontz. Bantam Books. 608 pages. $26.95.

Good versus evil.

That's a familiar theme for Dean Koontz, and one he's mined to great effect, and phenomenal success, in more than 75 novels over the last 30 years. Once known primarily as a “horror” writer, Koontz, 58, has arguably transcended that genre to become what Rolling Stone magazine has called “America's most popular suspense novelist.”

That may or may not be true, but his chilling stories of mystery and adventure - including a dozen New York Times No. 1 bestsellers - have sold more than 250 million copies worldwide. That's a pretty good sign of popularity.

The Face is the story of Ethan Truman, a former L.A. homicide detective who is head of security for Hollywood superstar Channing Manheim, whose most obvious asset has earned him the nickname “The Face.” But Manheim's lonely, 10-year-old son, Aelfric, refers to his famous father as “Ghost Dad,” because he's usually present at the family's Bel Air mansion only in spirit.

When mysterious packages begin to arrive at Manheim's estate, Truman is at first puzzled, then disturbed. The most ominous “gift” is an apple that's been cut in half, then stitched back together with a doll's plastic eyeball in the middle.

Truman believes the packages are sinister warnings that somebody - or something - is coming after his boss.

It turns out he's right about the danger, but wrong about its intended target, who turns out to be young Aelfric, a geeky kid who would seem more at home in a Harry Potter novel than in a Hollywood mansion.

The bad guy here, Corky Laputa, is classic Koontz, a psychotic college professor who gets his jollies by trying to spread anarchy throughout his little corner of the world. To that end, he gives tainted drugs to kids, scatters chemical defoliants on strangers' lawns, and feeds dogs poisoned treats.

But he's got something far nastier in mind for Aelfric, if he's able to get his hands on the boy.

Ethan Truman is the only force between Laputa and his intended victim - the only human force, that is. Good and evil, natural and supernatural overlap each other in The Face, and it might be hard for some readers to sort out what's really going on and what might be a character's hallucination. Some people get killed - watch out for that guy's hand in the potato chip bag, Ethan - but go on living, while others who really are dead make threatening phone calls to the living - or are they actually friendly warnings?

There's no denying that Dean Koontz is a gifted storyteller. His plots are intricately crafted, his characters realistically drawn - if a tad too self-analytical - and his stories have enough twists, turns, and surprises to make them difficult to put down.

But he also shows an occasional tendency to overwrite, seemingly reluctant to use a few words when a few dozen will do.

For example:

“From the tall study windows, the view appeared to be a painting of the kind employed in motion-picture matte shots: An exquisitely rendered dimensional scene that, through the deceiving eye of the camera, could serve convincingly as a landscape on an alien planet or as a place on this world perfected as reality never allowed.”

It's hard to escape the impression that without some of the flowery verbal gymnastics, this 608-page volume could have been shaved by a good half a pound.

Many may find The Face a difficult slog compared to some of Koontz's earlier, more focused works, such as Midnight, Seize the Night, and By the Light of the Moon, but diehard Koontz fans will doubtlessly enjoy every spooky step of the journey.

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