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Friday, 15 November 2013

FFB - Koko

This Friday’s forgotten book was published in 1988; a departure for Peter Straub, moving from supernatural elements to thriller. But this is a thriller with a difference, with over 600 pages. It concerns four survivors of the same platoon whose service in Vietnam culminated in an atrocity in a small village, Ia Thoc. Four men from totally different backgrounds, who chose different paths in life, Dr. Michael Poole, ‘baby doctor’; Harry ‘Beans’ Beevers, the ‘the world's worst lieutenant’, now a lawyer; Tina Pumo, Pumo the Puma, a NYC restaurateur; and wild little Conor Linklater, a skilled carpenter.

Fifteen years later, they reunite to investigate a series of murders in the Far East: the killer stuffs one of the regiment’s playing cards into his victim’s mouth, mutilates him, and identifies himself with a name they all once shared – Koko.

Koko is rich in characterisation, suspense and horror. And irony: ex-Lieutentant Beevers is the instigator of the search for the Koko killer because he can see the potential for a best-seller non-fiction book and even a mini-series. There are flashbacks, some graphic, snatched from the memories of the main characters; each in their way adding another piece to the puzzle of why they acted as they did.
Dr Poole observes that ‘improbability and violence overflowed from ordinary life, and Stephen King seemed to know that.’ So does Straub. Time and again someone would enter a room and I would wonder if the killer was there, ready to pounce; and even when he did, the suspense continued.

Some of the characters were not particularly pleasant yet I still cared what happened to them – well, with the exception of Beevers! And as the search progressed and the identity of the killer changed, sympathy began to creep in. For Koko is a story about a haunting: as ‘if Vietnam was their real life and everything else just afterglow.’ It is a pleasure to read, notwithstanding the coarse language and graphic brutality depicted.
‘Terror has many layers’ says one of the characters, and so has Koko.

This is a psychological horror thriller, touching upon Vietnam, the ironies and terror of that conflict, but mainly it is about people sucked into the past. A memorable page-turner.
(Indeed, so memorable that some years after reading Koko, when I acquired a book for Solstice, A Dark Time by William Patrick Hackett, I felt resonances of Koko, though Hackett’s is wholly original and to be recommended).
A Dark Time.
This is one of those big and long American novels that defy definition, with several characters seemingly disconnected until the connections are made - none of which seem contrived. The odyssey we share with Danza and O’Neil is believable and traumatic. I certainly sensed a layer of nihilism running through the tale. What indeed is the point of a life? Maybe examining that question in the so-called ‘flower power’ period, where everything wasn’t all about ‘love’, gives us one answer; it was just as dark and nasty as any other decade. In fact, ultimately, life is to be lived. This book has the potential to become a powerful movie; a tour de force.
- Nik Morton

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