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KOONTZ'S SPELL DOESN'T LINGER

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COLD FIRE By Dean R. Koontz Putnam's. 382 pages. $22.95. Reviewed by Susan Ladd

For me, the test of any suspense thriller is how hard it is to set aside and how long its spell lingers. Though quite promising in the beginning, Dean Koontz's Cold Fire ultimately fails on both counts.

It's another case of a premise that's far better than its resolution. Protagonist Jim Ironheart is a schoolteacher who suddenly begins to experience psychic flashes that enable him to arrive at the scene of impending disaster and save people from death. Ironheart invariably makes a quick exit before spectators can learn anything about him.Holly Thorne is a bored newspaper reporter who finds new purpose after she witnesses one of Ironheart's incredible rescues. Driven by both physical attraction and reporter's curiosity, Thorne begins to piece together a string of these amazing rescues, all of which involve a mystery man fitting Ironheart's description.

In reviewing these cases, she also realizes that Ironheart gave her more personal information than he'd ever given anyone - enough information to track him down at his California home.

Thorne is burning with questions, but when she penetrates Ironheart's reserve, she discovers he doesn't know the source or purpose of his psychic powers.

What does become obvious is that the two are somehow linked, that she was meant to find Ironheart and accompany him on a dangerous journey into his past.

When the book is following Ironheart on his rescues, it is gripping. The fact that Ironheart himself doesn't understand the power - and that the knowledge of the disasters comes to him only piecemeal as the event is unfolding - makes for great suspense.

Where Koontz falters is the quieter moments when his characters interact. In these passages, his writing is often self-conscious and embarrassing: ``Two pajama bottoms and one top seemed to dissolve between them like clothes sometimes evaporate in erotic dreams.'

The action is more involving than the characters themselves, who never really make sense as individuals. Though the whole plot hinges on Ironheart's psyche, Koontz never develops him enough to make the reader care what happens to him.

The book really falls apart in the second half, when Thorne and Ironheart try to track down the source of his power.

The resolution is not only disappointing and unbelievable, but quite familiar to readers of Stephen King. Themes and images from The Stand, The Tommyknockers and especially The Dark Half shape the conclusion of Cold Fire.

At a time when King himself seems to be drawing again and again from the same well, it's disappointing to see other authors copying him.

Koontz is capable of spinning a good tale, as the novel's beginning proves. What Cold Fire lacks is depth, both in its characters and its overall vision. Koontz had an intriguing idea, but failed to develop it into a memorable story.

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