Michael Marshall

Harper Collins £10.00 hbk

Reviewed by Ali Karim

Sometimes a book breaks through the pontoon pack, like an ace of spades arriving as a second card on the green baize. This entitles you to yell 'black jack!' to anyone who'll listen in the casino. At three a.m. this morning that's exactly what I wanted to do, except that during the night, the book had given me the creeps, and for an old and jaded crime/SF/horror reader, that says a lot. It takes a huge amount to really creep me out, and this book is so dark that it felt at times that I was reading it wearing sunglasses, but then again, fear of the dark is one of its themes.

I had been wondering what had happened to Michael Marshall Smith over the last couple of years. I had followed his career after reading the groundbreaking novel 'Spares' (which still languishes 'In-development' with Dreamworks). I had then clawed my way through his short stories, and then his two other novels. His earlier work had been surreal Horror/SF but all written with jagged shards of US-Noir. He even quoted Jim Thompson at the opening of 'Spares' which incidentally had been my favourite from his cannon, well, until just now.

'The Straw Men' is written both from the first person perspective of Ward Hopkins, a sort of ex-CIA type of guy with a shady past, and a shady side-kick 'Bobby', who are investigating the suspicious death of Ward's parents. It also has sections written in third person detailing the hunt for a serial killer by ex-LA Homicide cop John Zandt, brought back into service by his former partner Nina. The hunt is on for an abducted girl Sarah Becker who they believe is still alive. They know this, because Zandt's daughter was a victim of the serial killer (nicknamed by a callused media) 'The Delivery Boy'.

The novel tips its hat to Thomas Harris and Stephen King with its opening referencing Lecter by having Gould's 'The Goldberg Variations' playing on a car radio prior to a 'The Regulators' - style bloodbath within a MacDonald's in Nowhere USA. The novel then turns sinister when Ward discovers that everything that he held dear and true, may well be a sham, as he starts to investigate the mysterious car-crash that took away his parents. A sense of urgency is drilled into the narrative because back on the West Coast the clock is ticking for the abducted Sarah Becker.

When these two plots converge, secrets and lies behind 'The Straw Men' are revealed, and these revelations are shocking, especially if read in the early hours of the morning. The temptation is to whip through the pages, but the quality of the writing is such that you have to read it slowly, to absorb the thoughts and ideas of the writer. There is a deeply disturbing strand or theory within the book, which some may find difficult, and rather unpleasant to digest, however it does engage the brain to explore a rather left-of-field idea. It was good to see computing and the internet used to great advantage within the plot without too much techno-terror. Characterisation is very strong, and the style is Jim Thompson meets Michael Crichton, i.e. dark characterisation with a synaptic-splitting concept. The writing is very hypnotic and because of its darkness, may not suit all tastes, even though the chills are not visceral, they are however deeply placed into the mind, and this is not a book you will forget for a long time. In fact, this is no conventional serial killer novel, for the ideas will lay imbedded in your mind like broken glass.

The ending was very moving and satisfied the mind, making it well worth the journey. I am certain that the name Michael Marshall will be soon be a major one in the crime genre, and I hope some of the readers may well look back into his previous non-crime work which he published as Michael Marshall Smith, for he is an extremely talented writer. This has to be in high on my top ten for 2002, with no margin of doubt, no margin of error, in fact in pontoon terms - Black Jack.