The Straw Men

by Michael Marshall

“Sometimes the truth isn’t what you want to know. Sometimes the truth is best left to itself.”

We’ve looked at a decent amount of horror here, and while the intricacy falls short of tales like The Angel’s Game or The Club Dumas, this book is one of the more complex. You’ll probably want to read it with your thinking cap on, not your boogie shoes.

The Straw Men follows two main storylines which intersect when they need to. It’s a gritty world where the heroes are not only flawed, they’re failures. Or, more accurately, they’re heroes haunted by their failures.

A former police detective is contacted by a federal agent, bringing him in on a serial killer case where she thinks he might be able to help. Well outside of the rules, this mirrors a previous case the two had worked where the detective’s own daughter was abducted. The case was never solved, and the detective’s life was destroyed by the events including an affair he had with the agent, but he showed an insight then that she feels he can bring to bear in this latest situation.

A man’s parents have died in a car accident, and over the course of settling their affairs he discovers their deaths may not be as they seem. He recruits an acquaintance from his former CIA days to help look into the mystery.

As each storyline digs in the questions deepen and the two unrelated trajectories begin to converge around a series of unsolved murders with particular details in common.

As mentioned in previous posts Mr. Marshall’s writing invokes ‘unsettling’ better than anyone, exercised mainly in his short stories but realized again here. They ring of truth, even when they’re brutal, on some deep level we understand wasn’t made up. Instead they’re history. Or soon will be history. This is how we are.

We can only speculate as to the reason he’s able to write this way, but the attempt leads to the conclusion he just knows things or taps into things intuitively concerning our condition that most of us haven’t the time, inclination or wherewithal to explore. It may not be conscious, but he knows, and couples the knowledge with the skill to put it to music.

For The Straw Men our beloved King wrote what’s probably the best endorsement I’ve seen from him: “Brilliantly written and scary as hell. A masterpiece.” Indeed. Michael Marshall (Smith) is a dangerous writer, a between-dimensions Harlan Ellison in a dark mood.

This one’s going to knock you around a bit. It’s going to throw smoke then bring you back into focus, positioning you just right so when you turn your head to look for the horror barreling from the side it’s precisely in time to catch the full splatter right in the eyes.

5 stars


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