OR: The Straw Men

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #32:-


Michael Marshall

HarperCollins hb, 373pp, £10

I’ve seen this book in shops with a sticker proudly declaring ‘As addictive as John Connolly or your money back’. Well I’m halfway through Connolly’s latest and I have to tell you that things are not looking good for the coffers at HarperCollins, which is not to say that Michael Marshall Smith’s first foray into the lucrative thriller market is wholly without merit, and kudos to him for having the chutzpah to assay something different, even if it doesn’t live up to the hullabaloo of the PR guys. But, while not wishing to straitjacket any writer, I have to admit that I found The Straw Men somewhat disappointing compared to such original and inventive work as Only Forward.

Ward Hopkins, a former CIA man and yet another in the author’s long line of borderline criminal heroes with useful connections and a diploma in Chandlerspeak, returns home for the funeral of his parents, tragically killed in an RTA, only to discover that they may not really be dead. As he searches for the truth, Ward discovers that everything he knows as fact about his past is based on lies planted in childhood. Neatly dovetailing with this is the story of John Zandt, a former LA homicide detective who, like Thomas Harris’s Will Graham, is gifted, or perhaps cursed, with the ability to get inside the minds of serial killers. Zandt crossed the line when his own daughter was taken by the monster known as The Upright Man. When another girl is abducted an FBI colleague brings him back on board, and the trail leads them to Ward Hopkins. The two men realise that they are working on the same case, one which involves a shadowy and powerful organisation of killers.

Serial killers dominate the thriller landscape of late, and writers seem to have grown increasingly desperate in their attempts to do something new with this modern icon, often lapsing into grotesquery for its own sake or parody, as the killers’ methods and motives become ever more obscure and absurd. While Marshall’s all powerful killer elite bring to mind many other conspiracy theories, not least those of The X-Files, he endows the concept with enough novelty and insight to sidestep the pitfalls of cliché, but The Upright Man, though the things that he does are undeniably shocking, doesn’t have the presence of a Hannibal Lecter or one of Connolly’s monsters. He is, at the risk of sounding trite, a business as usual killer, murdering people for no better reason that that’s what he does (Marshall touches on the nature versus nurture controversy, but provides no real motivation, even within the constraints of madness). He does not chill the blood and the memory of his evil does not linger in the mind once the book is finished.

Elsewhere Marshall creates problems for himself with the constant shifts of character viewpoint, which slow the narrative down and prevent the reader getting into any steady rhythm. The third person is used throughout, except when Hopkins has the ball, at which point it shifts up a gear into first person, and on the whole his world weary and mocking commentary, full of cynical observations about modern life, is one of the novel’s great pleasures, though there are moments when the smart aleck nature of this inner monologue makes the reader feel slightly less sympathetic to Hopkins than circumstances merit.

The biggest problem with The Straw Men though is to do with the over contrived plot. Too many times the reader is left wondering why people act as they do, and Marshall doesn’t provide any compelling or convincing rationale for their behaviour. Why, having decided to fake their own deaths, do Ward Hopkins’s parents not simply tell him about his past instead of buggering about with a complex trail of clues? Why indeed, as loving parents, do they set things up in such a way that their son will inevitably be drawn into danger? And why, having operated covertly for umpteen years, do the Straw Men suddenly draw attention to themselves by blowing buildings up and shooting at everything that moves? Ultimately the engine driving the plot is author convenience rather than necessity, and in striving after fortissimo effects Marshall undermined my willingness to give credence to much of what was taking place. Nor does the ending provide the closure we might have hoped for; instead there’s the hint of a sequel, when maybe some of these riddles will be more forcefully addressed.

As thrillers go The Straw Men is better written than most and doesn’t insult the intelligence, entertaining while it lasts and at the same time insightful about its subject matter, but ultimately what we have here is more in the nature of interesting failure than qualified success.

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