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BOOK REVIEW

Hero has a ghost of a chance to solve crimes in 'Odd Thomas'

Odd Thomas, By Lee Dean Koontz, Bantam, 416 pp., $26.95

Odd Thomas, the hero in Dean Koontz's new novel, believes that "a little terror goes a long way." And after reading this suspenseful, memorable, and thoroughly entertaining tale, named after its unassuming protagonist, so does a little humor, social commentary, and feel-good optimism.

Odd is an earnest 20-year-old short-order cook whose professional aspirations extend only as far as a job at Tire World in the local mall. But he has a special gift that keeps him plenty busy when he is not perfecting his egg art and crafting cheeseburgers of "exemplary quality." "I see dead people. But then, by God, I do something about it," he says. And with the help of Wyatt Porter, chief of the Pico Mundo Police Department, Odd brings killers to justice and is able to prevent acts of violence from occurring by virtue of this gift that allows him a glimpse into the paranormal.

Some of these ghosts, or bodachs, that Odd sees exist to apparently entertain, foreshadow a bloody event, or to seek justice for their deaths. The first bodach in the novel is Penny Kallisto, a young girl who was brutalized and murdered by a loafer named Harlo Landerson. After Penny haunts Odd for a few days she leads him to Landerson, who is captured in a hair-raising scene that gives Odd some action-hero credentials. The other friendly bodachs include: a weepy Elvis Presley, still mourning the death of his mother, Gladys; a wry and cheeky Tom Jedd, a local stonemason who lost his arm in an automobile accident; and a prostitute who saves Odd from a pack of hungry coyotes.

Odd is right at home in Pico Mundo, a hot, sleepy town in southern California where nothing much ever happens. He exists in his world not as a tortured young soul haunted by ghosts, but as an optimistic, self-aware yet eccentric figure. He has a deep love for his girlfriend, Stormy Llewelyn, a moralist who believes that this life is only training for the others that are to come. Their relationship is sweet and peculiar at the same time; they believe that they are destined to be together because a carnival fortune-telling machine told them so and they have matching birthmarks, though Stormy's may or may not be a tattoo.

One of the many reasons this novel works is Koontz's talent for creating richly drawn characters. Odd's oddness seems to arise partly from his estrangement from his family. But Koontz doesn't hit the reader over the head with that underlying psychodrama. Odd's strongest familial influences include his late adventurous and gambling grandmother, Pearl Sugars, who is very much alive in his memory. His father is a vain, shallow, and materialistic 45-year-old who only dates sleek, moody girls barely out of their teens. His beautifully fragile mother is mentally ill, and the two have a complex and painful relationship.

But Pico Mundo is Odd's surrogate nurturer. And his friends, most of them adults, step into the role in which his natural parents could not gain a foothold. He has father figures in his mentor, P. Oswald Boone, a successful writer, who readily admits to his weakness for food, and in Porter, the police chief who feels a deep sense of responsibility to Odd, as he is one of the few who knows of Odd's gift and actually benefits from it. Other mainstays in the town, including Odd's boss at the Pico Mundo Grille, a blind radio DJ, fill the spaces that a normal family would occupy.

But Odd's contented existence is interrupted when Bob Robertson comes to town with a horde of bodachs in tow. These bodachs, far from the harmless and good-humored type, are drawn to violence and mayhem, and Odd senses that terror may be on Pico Mundo's doorstep.

When Odd breaks into Robertson's house to find out why he is such a draw for unfriendly bodachs, the suspense goes into high gear. The house contains a room that seems to allow for time travel. On the wall of the study are pictures of Mohammed Atta, Timothy McVeigh, and Charles Manson. On Robertson's calendar, the page for Aug. 15 -- the following day in the novel -- has been ripped out. Also, his bank statements show he has access to several hundred thousand dollars. It is clear to Odd that something big and bloody is about to happen, and he only has one day to head it off.

The journey that leads Odd to discover and attempt to thwart this disaster is punctuated by terrifying moments, humorous insights, and Odd's ever-present rosy outlook. Odd's mentor Boone is his guide in writing this memoir, and he instructs Odd to keep the tone light. So even amid all the gore and morbidity, paranormal meanderings, and light lecturing on our consumerist culture, the reader is able to get quite a few laughs and even feel a bit uplifted by the novel's message.

Joanne Skerrett can be reached at jskerrett@globe.com.

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