BROTHER ODD. By Dean Koontz. Bantam Books. 364 pages. $27.
Odd Thomas is a 21-year-old unemployed fry cook, but he's considerably more than that. He's able to see the spirits of the dead, and he has visions that in the past have allowed him to solve mysteries and prevent tragedies from occurring.
Thomas has been the central character in two previous bestsellers (Odd Thomas and Forever Odd) by wildly successful suspense and horror novelist Dean Koontz. In his newest outing, Brother Odd, Thomas has taken leave of his hometown of Pico Mundo, Calif., for the first time and is residing at St. Bartholomew's Abbey, an isolated monastery in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
He's not particularly keen on the unexplained paranormal gifts that he possesses, calling them "disconcerting and generally not conducive to an upbeat mood." In fact, it's the heavy psychic toll those gifts have taken on him that's prompted Thomas to seek out the seclusion of the abbey, where he hopes he'll be able to bring some peace to his life.
But of course, it's not to be.
After several months of enjoying the muted company of the monastery's eccentric monks and the nuns of an adjacent shelter and school for disabled children, Thomas has an unnerving experience one night. He spots some "bodachs" making their way across the monastery grounds.
These creatures, named after the evil spirits of Scottish folklore, are shadowy, sinister demons that have a habit of showing up whenever something unspeakably horrible is about to happen. Only Thomas can see them, but even he can't discern precisely what disaster their presence is signaling.
Is it the children at the shelter who are in danger? The brothers in the monastery? The nuns at the convent school? Is it Thomas himself? He has only a day, or two at most, to figure out what the threat is and head it off.
As he tries frantically to prevent a catastrophe, readers will be swept along with this unlikeliest of heroes on a ride that's both harrowing and humorous.
As always, this Koontz story is populated by a rich assortment of supporting characters. There's Brother Knuckles, a former mob enforcer who got tired of breaking legs and turned to God for salvation. And Brother John, a world-renowned physicist who donated billions of dollars to the church before joining its ranks as a simple monk. And Sister Angela, the Mother Superior with the steely determination of the Terminator.
But lest anyone get the wrong idea from this characterization, Thomas helpfully clarifies it: "Of course I mean the good Terminator from the second movie in the series," he says.
There are also various ghosts wandering - or rather floating - in and out of scenes, the most entertaining of which is the impish spirit of Elvis Presley, an old pal who materialized in an earlier Odd Thomas story. Here Elvis shows up wearing a flamenco-dancer outfit that Thomas notes is from the King's movie Fun in Acapulco.
Sensing Thomas' distress, Elvis tries to lighten the mood by pretending to pick his nose and having the end of his finger wind up poking out of one of his ears and wiggling. Thomas can't help but smile, and neither can the reader.
It would help to have read Koontz's two earlier books featuring Odd Thomas, inasmuch as there are several references to incidents that took place in them. But Brother Odd is an offbeat adventure that can stand on its own, too. And as the book ends, the stage is set for yet another Odd Thomas sequel.
Dean Koontz may not be a mystic like his favorite character, but he's no fool, either, and he knows what sells.