Koko (novel)

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Koko (Peter Straub novel) cover.jpg
First edition cover
AuthorPeter Straub
CountryUnited States
SeriesBlue Rose Trilogy
GenreMystery, Thriller, Horror
Publication date
Media typePrint ()
Pages562 (hardcover)
813/.54 19
LC ClassPS3569.T6914 K6 1988
Preceded byNone 
Followed byMystery 

Koko is an American horror-mystery novel written by Peter Straub and first published in the United States in 1988 by EP Dutton, and in Great Britain by Viking. It was the winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel[1] in 1989.

Plot summary[edit]

Shortly after the end of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the newspaper Stars and Stripes publishes an article chronicling a series of brutal, ritualistic murders in Far East Asia. All of the victims have had their eyes and ears removed, and each was found with a playing card slipped into his or her mouth with the word "KOKO" written on it.

Shortly thereafter, a reunion of Vietnam War veterans is held at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC. Four survivors of a doomed platoon—Michael Poole (a pediatrician plagued by grief over the death of his young son from cancer and ambivalence about his marriage), Tina Pumo (owner of a Vietnamese restaurant), Conor Linklater (a journeyman construction worker) and Harry Beevers (an opportunistic lawyer)—gather to discuss the Koko killings. Because the word "Koko" holds special significance to the members of their platoon, and because the killings recall the events in a series of books he wrote, the men believe that the killer is Tim Underhill, another member of their platoon who disappeared years earlier in southeast Asia. Beevers convinces the men to help him track down Underhill, hoping that later they can sell the story of their adventure to the news media and become millionaires.

While Pumo remains in New York to finish work on his soon-to-be-reopened restaurant, Beevers, Poole, and Linklater travel to Asia in search of Underhill, while the killer travels to America to continue his killing spree, which is meant to atone for an atrocity committed by Beevers and other members of the platoon years earlier, during the war.

Much of the plot is interspersed with flashbacks to the four friends' time in Vietnam. Harry Beevers, the lieutenant of the group, was forceful and merciless. Tina, Conor, and Michael were soldiers in his platoon, along with several other men, most notably Victor Spitalny, a foul-tempered and arrogant young man, and M.O. Dengler, a philosophical and thoughtful man from a small town. After Vietnam, it was said that, while Dengler and Spitalny were traveling together in Bangkok, Dengler was brutally murdered in an alleyway while Spitalny fled the scene. Spitalny has not been accounted for since then (fifteen years before the platoon's trip to Singapore).

Michael, Conor, and Harry fail to find Underhill in Singapore, but are given several leads while milling around sketchy clubs in the heart of the city that lead Michael and Conor to Bangkok and Harry to Taipei. While Conor searches the darker side of Bangkok, Michael wanders the flower market and residential areas of Bangkok. Before he does so, he visits the scene of Dengler's death, among other landmarks, but his search turns up fruitless. However, while wandering aimlessly around the city, thinking of his wife Judy and the strained relationship between the two of them, he sees an elephant, which delights him, and very soon afterwards finds Underhill at a small neighborhood fair. Upon meeting him, Michael realizes that Underhill couldn't possibly be Koko. His personality and state of mind are far too stable for vicious homicides. Michael convinces Underhill to return to America and help them find Koko. It is agreed that Underhill will accompany Michael and Conor on the flight to San Francisco where they meet with Harry and return to New York together.

Meanwhile, back in America, Tina Pumo is murdered by Koko in his apartment. Tina's girlfriend, an attractive young Chinese woman named Maggie Lah, comes to visit him shortly thereafter. Maggie realises something is wrong on arriving at Tina's apartment, as the front door has been left open, and enters the apartment trying not to attract notice. Koko realises she has entered but is not sure of her whereabouts. Koko attempts to lure Maggie into exposing herself to him & gives his position away in the process. Maggie smashes an empty plant pot on Koko's head and knocks him briefly to the floor. This gains Maggie the few precious seconds she needs to escape, and she runs off. She is pursued, but the small lead she has is enough, and she makes it to safety.

Michael, Conor, Beevers, Underhill, and Maggie mourn Tina's death, though Maggie does not attend the funeral, as she's worried about what Tina's relatives will say about her position in his life. The five get together and deduce that the murderer is, in fact, Victor Spitalny, having seen such horrors in the war that he has snapped and gone on a murderous rampage. Underhill and Beevers stay at Beevers' house and man the phones in case Koko calls. Michael, Maggie, and Underhill travel to Milwaukee, where Spitalny's parents live, and speak with the two of them. They do not trust the father, George Spitalny, and Maggie develops a hatred towards him. Conor returns home and develops a relationship with the niece of a man he works with, a woman named Ellen Woyzak. Beevers posts many fliers around town, each of them displaying a coded message only understandable by Koko, telling him to meet Beevers at a park in the center of town a few days later. In Milwaukee, the trio find out that Dengler and Spitalny went to the same school together, and speak to several of Spitalny's old classmates. None have anything particularly odd to say about Spitalny, though Michael agrees to meet one of them for lunch the next day and another for drinks that evening. Out of curiosity, Michael, Underhill, and Maggie go to see Dengler's mother. She turns out to be a religious maniac who taught M.O. Dengler a twisted version of Christianity, along with her husband, who is now deceased. When Michael meets Dengler's classmate for drinks, the man tells him that Dengler's parents had violently abused him several times to correct any errors he might have made. Furthermore, Dengler's father had been arrested and put in prison (and gruesomely murdered two years later by another prisoner) for sexually assaulting Dengler, beginning when he was five or six. Underhill learns the same information at the library, as well as the fact the Karl Dengler is Manny Dengler's real father (where Mrs. Dengler is not his real mother). Michael is shocked by the news and returns with Maggie and Underhill to New York, Michael and Maggie beginning a relationship before the journey.

Conor and Ellen are waiting fervently for them at the airport, where Underhill is arrested because Harry Beevers had made an anonymous call to police so he could get Michael and Underhill out of the way and capture Koko alone. It is revealed that Koko has been telling people that his name is Underhill, thus framing Underhill for any murders he may have committed. Michael explains this to Murphy, the policeman who arrested Underhill, and reveals that Koko is not Spitalny as they had thought, but M.O. Dengler, their beloved comrade. Dengler killed Spitalny, switched dog-tags, and had a mob destroy his face and body. Murphy scolds the group for not telling the police of their findings before letting them go.

Meanwhile, Harry Beevers decides to trap Koko in a killing box and hides in an arcade in Chinatown. He moves down a flight of stairs, a knife in one pocket and a pair of handcuffs in the opposite pocket. He hears something in the darkness and reaches for his knife. Beevers then remembers, belatedly, that the knife had fallen through a hole in his coat pocket earlier on that day, and he transferred it to the same pocket as the handcuffs, to make it easier to find. Koko seizes him and draws him into the darkness beneath the stairs.

Michael, Maggie, Underhill, Conor, and Ellen travel quickly to where they think Beevers met Koko—a cave-like arcade in Chinatown. Murphy and his squad of police trail them. They are unaware of the policemen's presence until Underhill alerts Michael to the sight of them. Michael and the group flee in different directions down a deserted street by the arcade. Underhill and Maggie alert Michael after finding a bloody knife on a lower level of a tenement building that they were hiding in. Michael, Conor, and Underhill find Beevers tied up, gagged, and injured. Koko/Dengler is nearby, and smashes a lightbulb, throwing the group into darkness. The policemen catch up with them and negotiate with Koko to release the four men. Koko/Dengler stabs Michael in the side and does the same to Underhill, however he gags Underhill and steals his jacket so that he could be easily mistaken for Underhill himself in the dim light. After Michael alerts the police that the small man in the coat is not Underhill, Koko/Dengler murders one of the officers and escapes.

In the aftermath, Koko/Dengler travels to Honduras and is never heard from again. Michael, Underhill, Maggie, Conor, and Ellen all survive, however Beevers commits suicide six months after the scene in the basement, having no purpose in his life and no more illusions of grandeur to hold on to. Two years later, Michael and Maggie are together and live in a loft above Tina Pumo's old loft, where Underhill lives with Vinh and his daughter. Underhill narrates the end of the story, and imagines Koko's first few days in Honduras and the constant anxiety that would come with them.


After the success of Ghost Story, Straub struggled to generate a plot that would prove just as financially successful without being derivative of that work.[2] He settled on the idea of Koko's murderous Vietnam veteran, and then wrote and re-wrote, ultimately completing the project after four years.[2] Straub has described Koko as being "emotionally richer" than any of his prior works.[1] He says that while writing it, he tried to mimic the "transparent" and "antiseptic" style of two stories from his collection Houses Without Doors: "Blue Rose" and "The Juniper Tree".[1]

Koko shares characters with several of Straub's other works. The character of Timothy Underhill, for example, subsequently reappeared in the novels The Throat, Lost Boy, Lost Girl, and In the Night Room, and he was mentioned in Mystery.[3] A short prequel to Koko, the short story "The Ghost Village", was also published in Straub's 2000 collection Magic Terror.[4] The town of Milburn, which was the primary setting of Ghost Story, is briefly featured in Koko. The character of Harry Beevers also appears as a teenager and central character in Straub's novella, Blue Rose.


  1. ^ a b c McCarty, Michael. "Man of Mystery Peter Straub reaches into his pocket and pulls out a novel, Sci Fi Weekly, published May 13, 2002, accessed April 29, 2008.
  2. ^ a b Guinn, Jeff. "Horrors - Peter Straub can't escape scary image", The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, published August 20, 2000, accessed April 29, 2008.
  3. ^ Berry, Michael. "A battered pair takes on child abuse and murder", The San Francisco Chronicle, published November 7, 2004, accessed April 29, 2008.
  4. ^ Berry, Michael. "Distinctive Voices in Fantastic Fiction", The San Francisco Chronicle, published October 22, 2000, accessed April 29, 2008.