By Marty Mulrooney
The Straw Men is a crime thriller by British writer Michael Marshall (Killer Move, We Are Here, also known as Michael Marshall Smith), first published in 2002. This Cemetery Dance Publications exclusive 10th Anniversary Special Edition includes a long introduction by the author, scans of the author’s writing notebooks, a deluxe oversized design, high-quality endpapers, fine bindings and an extremely collectible print run.
It was a brief, emphatic utterance, conveying nothing except urgency. People moved unconsciously out of the way, creating a clearing in the central aisle. It became evident that two men – one in his late teens, the other mid-twenties, both wearing long coats – were the focus of the woman’s concern. It was soon also clear that they were carrying semiautomatic rifles.
After a chilling prologue detailing a small-town massacre inside a McDonald’s restaurant in the early 90s, The Straw Men jumps ahead 10 years to the present day (at least, the present day when the book was first published). In Montana, Ward Hopkins attends the funeral of his parents who were recently killed in a car crash. In Los Angeles, a 15-year-old girl called Sarah Becker is abducted by a man assumed dead. Although seemingly unrelated, these separate incidents will set in motion an unstoppable chain reaction that will bring to light a conspiracy long hidden in the shadows – and in broad daylight, which is arguably even scarier.
Michael Marshall certainly knows how to grab and hold a reader’s attention. Not long after Ward has seen his folks buried six feet under, he notices something odd about his father’s favourite armchair in their home: the cushion is bulging in the middle. Further inspection reveals a note. “Ward,” it read, “We’re not dead.” Four small words that will change everything. Before long, Ward is tearing the house apart for clues and enlisting the help of his CIA friend Bobby. Their investigation will continue to throw up more questions about Ward’s parents – and Ward himself – and put them both in extreme danger.
Meanwhile, ex-Los Angeles police detective John Zandt is an utter mess, living a life of forced isolation. FBI agent Nina Bayman tracks him down soon after the kidnapping of Sarah Becker, believing her disappearance marks the resurgence of ‘The Upright Man’, a serial killer who murdered several girls of a similar age some years earlier. John may be off-kilter, but Nina knows he can get things done where going via official channels would flounder. Plus, he has a personal stake in the case. He certainly has no intention of bringing The Upright Man in alive.
“Guess I’ll let it go, this time,” he said.
Zandt smiled. It was a thin smile, and bore little resemblance to anything caused by merriment. “There is only this time.”
Fielding cocked his head. “And that’s supposed to mean… what?”
“That if we meet again and you pull a gun on me, some pretty lake is going to have little scraps of Fed floating in it. And I don’t give a shit if it fucks up the ecosystem.”
Zandt turned away, leaving the agent open-mouthed.
The Straw Men is a pleasure to read not only because it has a gripping plot, but because the characters are all so well written and believable. The chapters focusing on Ward are written in the first person, which places the reader right inside his head as his world is turned upside down. The chapters focussing on everyone else are written in the third person, allowing John and Nina to act independently until their paths inevitably merge with Ward and Bobby’s. It also allows The Upright Man to be shown as an actual person – albeit a sick and deranged one – rather than as a cartoon villain to simply further the plot. There’s always a prevalent sense that the world is a lot bigger than what we’re being shown – and it’s scary.
It’s also quite funny in parts, although The Straw Men is by no means a comedy. In particular, the interaction between old friends Ward and Bobby crackles and pops off the page. Likewise, Nina and John have a shared history that allows them to speak on a much more brutally honest level than they ever would with anyone else. For a book containing such dark subject matter – and trust me, it gets really dark – it’s a relief that the characters are constantly making the best of a bad situation, using subtle humour as a release. Just like in real life. Once the duo becomes a foursome, it gets even better. How it all ties together is immensely satisfying, believable and again – very scary.
“Brilliantly written and scary as hell. A masterpiece.” STEPHEN KING
Even Stephen King agrees, which is the exact reason why I noticed the paperback version of The Straw Men on a local supermarket shelf in 2003 at the tender age of 15. I eventually managed to convince my mother to let me purchase it against her better judgment – and the rest, as they say, is history. I’ve read every Michael Marshall book published since (and even went back to visit his earlier Michael Marshall Smith books, which are just as well-written and entertaining). I interviewed him on Alternative Magazine Online in 2009, 2011 and 2013. I guess you could say I’m a fan.
It was around the time I last interviewed Mr Marshall that I became aware of a 10th Anniversary Edition of The Straw Men. It’s my favourite book, so I was delighted when he promised to send me a copy upon release. Time passed by and there was still no sign of it, until it was quietly published in 2015 (making it more of a 13th Anniversary Edition really). I discovered its eventual publication by chance. A quick, polite email later – of course he remembers me, of course he’s still a really nice guy who would be more than happy to hook me up – and voila, I had a signed copy arriving through the letterbox.
Ward walked forward, bent down to pick it up. “Girl or boy?”
Zandt took the femur from him. Like the ribs, the leg was clean and white, as if some process had recently been used to bring it to museum condition. “Can’t be sure. But somebody not very old. A teenager.”
The two men stood together, watching either side of the path.
“Someone’s leading us somewhere,” Ward said.
“The question is whether we follow.”
To be honest, I was afraid to read The Straw Men again after all these years – and not just because I remembered it being scary. A part of me wondered if I held the book in such high regard simply because it was the first novel I read from my future favourite author. Another part of me worried that youth had made the scary parts seem scarier, the exciting parts more exciting, the adult parts more adult. I needn’t have worried. The cutting-edge technology described has since moved on (what the hell is a pfiz! drive?!) but the story remains the same – and it’s outstanding. The sad part that made me cry when I was 15? I knew it was coming and I still shed a tear 13 years later. That’s good storytelling.
The 10th Anniversary Special Edition of The Straw Men is beautifully presented. For those who are interested, the front cover was shot by Michael Marshall himself – you can see more of his photography via his Instagram page. For UK readers, there’s also the chance to read a slightly different version of the text near the end – it’s the US text, which moves Ward to the third person like everyone else. The lengthy introduction (including scans of the author’s writing notebooks) will delight anyone who is a fan of the novel, the creative process or writing in general. It’s like a super deluxe edition of your favourite film with all the special features but in book form. It’s also signed and numbered, which is awesome.
Stephen King was right: The Straw Men is a masterpiece. This 10th Anniversary Special Edition by Cemetery Dance (still available via their website) is the perfect way to discover (or indeed, rediscover) it. Time is running out for Sarah Becker and The Upright Man is still at large. What are you waiting for? You’ll never look at your parents in quite the same way again…
10 OUT OF 10
You can find out more about Michael Marshall | Smith by visiting: www.michaelmarshallsmith.com