Dark Rivers of the Heart
Dean Koontz
Headline Book Publishing, London, 1994, hardback 537pp. (ISBN 0-7472-0962-6)

This book is worth reading for at least two reasons. First, it is quite a well-written and engaging novel. Second, and more important for the libertarian, it contains a good deal of information about the actions and capabilities of certain US security agencies, such as the FBI, and about the use and abuse of power. Although fiction, it closer to 'faction' than most of the author's work, and will appeal to all those readers who live in fear of democratic tyranny.

The hero, Spencer, is a cliched type: the scarred man (literally), traumatised by a horrific childhood incident. In common with a certain elderly seafaring man, Spencer feels periodically compelled to unburden himself of his curse upon a passive listener - usually a bar room drunk. When not so engaged, his only companion is a dog named Rocky, who like the hero carries the burden of a troubled past - though in Rocky's case it is excessive timidity from some form of ill-treatment.

Spencer determines to 'find a life' after encountering a waitress named Valerie. An evening of normal human conversation with her inspires a second. When Valerie fails to arrive for her shift Spencer drives to her home. He knows where she lives because he followed her the previous evening and sat gazing forlornly at her windows for several hours, as only emotionally damaged heroes seem able to (most people get bored or fall asleep). Seeing no sign of life, he quickly gains entry, and finds evidence that the object of his desires has made a hasty departure. A sudden assault upon the house by a what he believes to be federal agents hastens Spencer's departure. From then on, as a certain London detective might say, the game is afoot: Spencer pursues Valerie; the agency pursues Valerie; and the agency pursues Spencer.

In typical Koontz fashion we are soon shown who are the good, the bad, and the lunatic. The chief instigator of the manhunt for Valerie and Spencer, Roy Miro, is a man of extreme and absolute moral certainty, devoted to making a small but significant difference to this world by assisting those most needful of help, into the next - usually through the workings of a 9mm pistol. Those most in need of help (in his opinion) are the old, the sick, the poor, the disfigured, and all who suffer - including those who possess some 'perfect' attribute. In Miro Koontz has succeeded in creating a personification of all our darkest fears of unrestrained state power and would-be social engineering. Nor do the actions of Miro and his colleagues (at least to this reviewer) seem quite as unlikely as they should. Those who cross Miro - including an unfortunate police captain - soon learn how quickly those laws that are supposedly designed for their protection and benefit can be abused. The aforementioned Captain Descaux is unfortunate enough to discover the all about Civil Asset Forfeiture, after making the grievous mistake of annoying Miro; but that is just one detail in the captain's personal hell.

Of course, Koontz is writing about America. But those who govern us are just as corrupt (for I can hardly think them so naive as to be unaware of the consequences of their actions). Every evil perpetrated by the Government of the United States filters ineluctably through to our own, regardless of the practical outcome, or, indeed of the practicalities. In this way we have seen the establishment of a hysterical and unreasoning anti-drug war, which has diverted fiscal, physical and intellectual resources from genuinely criminal activities. The common argument in favour of this diversion is that drug misuse (not the term I should necessarily use) is at the root of the supposed crime wave by which our society (or all societies even) is constantly swamped. A more reasonable examination of the status quo ought to be enough to convince any person of at least average intelligence that there is in fact no crime wave, and never has been. Furthermore, although it is too often stated that drugs are the root cause of crime, it is as frequently claimed that the root is pornography; or alcohol. Or that it is the inevitable result of a comparatively recent shift in the structure of society - the fault of Thatcherism or the National Lottery. And if this all sounds a bit over the top to you, think again.

One good sign - though I view it with mixed feelings - is that individuals with a significant social profile are now voicing criticisms of the current situation, to the effect that realistic and workable alternatives should, and must, be examined. Against the kneejerk and tabloid mentality which continues to cry for Tough New Laws on everything we are seeing an increasing number of public figures question the wisdom of such measures. This is doubtless largely the result of such fiascoes as the Dangerous Dog Act; but it is also down to the cumulative effect of continual intellectual debate, especially that involving those indidviduals and groups holding the most extreme views. For it is a certainty that only by going to extremes is it possible to achieve even a moderate level of success in securing greater personal and collective freedom, and preventing the destruction of what liberty we have.

It would serve little purpose for the reviewer to further decry the plight of freedom in the Western World. Suffice it to say that he sees much that distresses him, but also much that encourages him. The thought that Mr Koontz's book must have been read by very many Americans is certainly a cause for gladness; and I hope that it has been widely read in Britain. For those who have yet to make its acquaintance, I will not say more of the denouement, nor shall I speak further of the heroes and villains of the piece. To do so would be to spoil things for those readers sensible enough to seek out this most encouragingly cynical book, and to make an unnecessary infringement upon both their time and patience. Suffice it to say that those characters deserving of slapped wrists get their hands slapped clean off, and that good ultimately triumphs, mostly. Just like life really. Not.

Mario Huet.

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