The Straw Men by Michael Marshall

Review written by Jess Peacock

When I was 22, I experienced the nightmare of watching my father waste away from brain cancer. After his death, I was faced with several revelations that retooled much of how I remembered the man. The news was not earth shattering, nor did it change how I felt about him. Nevertheless, the rose tinted glasses were off, and I was left recalibrating my family history in the spotlight of such a sudden contextual shift.

It is this unnerving change in what we may or may not know about our parents that lures us into The Straw Men, Michael Marshall's much heralded serial killer novel, praised by Stephen King as no less than "a masterpiece!"

Ward Hopkins returns home to bury his parents who died in a car accident, but soon finds that things are not what they seem upon finding a hidden note from his father that reads, "We're not dead." In addition to the ominous message is a mysterious videotape containing several disparate images that force Hopkins to rethink his childhood, the life his parents led, and what he must do to survive the answers to some very horrible questions.

A congruous through line also focuses on John Zandt, an ex-homicide detective who has displayed an uncanny ability for tracking and apprehending serial killers, save for The Upright Man who not only remains at large, but who also abducted and murdered Zandt's daughter.

The first third of The Straw Men is truly riveting, knocking the reader off balance with a senseless mass murder in a small town McDonalds, then continues to move the ground under our feet as Hopkins and Zandt are inexorably lured into the paranoiac truth of their investigations.

As the novel progresses, however, Marshall loses the aura of emotional claustrophobia that he develops in the previous pages by introducing characters to assist Hopkins and Zandt. The latter teams with former lover and FBI agent Nina Baynam, while Hopkins is blessed with the presence and resources of Bobby, a conveniently armed CIA operative. By providing this well equipped support team, the author effectively strips the story of its horror and suspense, devolving into a vanilla flavored Hollywood style thriller.

Without discussing what would undoubtedly be spoiler material, The Straw Men also suffers under the weight of major leaps in logic and discrepant plot elements conjoining advantageously. Moreover, while most fantastic fiction requires us to suspend disbelief for the duration, a skilled writer is able to make the reader an accomplice to the process without even realizing what has happened.

This is not to say that The Straw Men fails as an intense thriller. Despite feeling uneven tonally, one can't help but plow through the pages to discover what the past will visit upon Hopkins as he searches for answers to both the life and death of his parents. Culminating in a sufficiently thrilling, albeit predictable finale where Zandt and Hopkins face mutually opposing resolutions, The Straw Men succeeds at being both satisfying and rather disappointing.