If I had met ‘Watchers’ when we were both much younger, way back in the Eighties, I think we’d have had a good time. Now, more than three decades later, we’re both showing our age.
I can see the appeal ‘Watchers’ had when it first hit shelves but I’m distracted by the literary equivalent of Eighties hairstyles and jackets with padded shoulders. I’m also more cranky and harder to impress than I was back then, so ‘Watchers’ now presses my buttons, both about voyeuristic violence and paper-thin characterisations of women. Yeah, I know, grumpy old git talking.
But then there was Einstein, the genetically enhanced Golden Retriever with language skills and a brain bigger than our ex-Delta Force (why are they always ex-Delta Force?) hero. Einstein was wonderful. Einstein justified the whole book. Anyone not liking Einstein needs a personality transplant.
I know that ‘Watchers’ is a favourite Koontz book for many of his readers and I can see why: Einstein, a scary monster, Einstein, outwitting the NSA, Einstein, triumphing over broken pasts and building a hopeful future, Einstein, defeating bad guys who really deserve it and finding good guys who will help in adversity because of … well, Einstein.
I tried hard to give myself up to this book and to Einstein and to the long-time-coming confrontations and I mostly made it, except for the times when I got distracted or had my buttons pressed.
At the start of the book, I was sure I was going to have fun. I was one chapter in and I’d already had one murder, one almost-encounter with a menacing something and a meeting with a very bright dog. I was hooked.
Then I started to have doubts.
There was too much relish in the descriptions of how the contract killer does his job. I felt like I was in a Jack Reacher novel only without a good guy to save the day.
I hated the subplot of the TV Repair Man turned stalker. I’m not sure if it just hasn’t aged well of if Koontz doesn’t write women who seem real but I’m I didn’t buy Nora’s internal dialogue,
That’s not to say the writing was bad. I hated both the assassin and the stalker. In my youth I’d have been glad to hate them and wait for the moment when they got theirs but my older, crankier self kept going, ‘This level of detail seems exploitative, don’t ya think? I mean, why else is it there?’
‘Watchers’ is definitely of its time. A lot of the plot has an ‘only in the 80s’ feel: the Russians are killing people rather than buying the President, the NSA are the good guys and no one has a phone. When our hero explains computers to Nora and tells her that they make everything more fluid and that they’ll make it more difficult for governments to control individuals, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. None of this is a criticism of Koontz. I just wish I read this in the Eighties when I’d have seen the same world he did.
By modern standards, the pace is leisurely but I don’t think it suffers because of it The pacing reminded me of dancing the flamenco, starting with slow, stylised posturing, leading into fast, hot-blooded action.
The emotional palette in ‘Watchers’ is limited but effective, like a graphic novel done in black and white with splashes of red à la ‘Sin City’. People are either very bad or very good and blood flows often and copiously.
Women don’t feature heavily, except for Nora who starts as a broken flower and evolves into someone comfortable with using an Uzzi at close range. I didn’t find her convincing in either role. I could see why she like Einstein but I was less clear on why she fell so hard and fast for our ex-Delta Force hero (did I mention I didn’t like him much? I was hoping he’d make The Ultimate Sacrifice).
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘Watchers’. It’s a recent recording with strong narration by Edoardo Ballerini. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.