Science Fiction Book Review

The Lonely Dead

(2005) Michael Marshall, HarperCollins, 6.99, pbk, 485pp, ISBN 0-00-716395-9

Better known to SF readers as Michael Marshall Smith, author of Only Forward, Spares and others, under the name Michael Marshall the author has been quietly making a name in 'thrillers'. Indeed, a new sub-genre has been born: the Serial Killer Thriller! Just joking (but I'm not sure the publishers are). His 'debut' novel was The Straw Men which introduced the character of ex-CIA agent Ward Hopkins. Teaming up with LA detective John Zandt, Ward uncovers an organised society of financially powerful serial killers, the Straw Men, who employ others to kidnap victims to order. One of the victims was Zandt's daughter and one of the kidnappers, a serial killer in his own right known as The Upright Man, is Ward's unknown twin brother, who may also have killed Ward's parents. By the end of the book the Straw Men's cozy world has been severely disrupted and Ward has become a target. The Lonely Dead picks up shortly after the events of the previous novel. In LA a cop is shot sitting in his car which leads to another corpse, that of a woman in a motel room, a computer's hard disk stuffed in her mouth. In Washington State a man walks into the woods intending to die, but believes he encounters Bigfoot and hooks up with a reporter to track down the creature. And Ward Hopkins continues the search for his brother, The Upright Man. Then John Zandt goes missing...

Michael's writing is crisp and blackly witty, just as with his SF and horror. Indeed, there are more than a few elements of both in his thrillers. For instance, the idea that the Straw Men might worship a sort of woodland entity that is at the root of their philosophy that Man is 'meant' to kill (kind of a Kali-cult for spirits of the forest). Probably the author's greatest strength is in presenting situations which, in a normal novel, would be either contrived or highly coincidental, but which he brings about in a laborious but logical and totally believable way. There is, to be sure, some reliance on unlikely thriller genre tropes - like good guys rarely being fatally shot so that they can pop up to save the day - but, on the whole, Michael steers away from them, sometimes completely inverts them, making his characters' lives harder. The Lonely Dead was first published last year; this year sees the release of Blood of Angels. I'm looking forward to it. So, if you've enjoyed Michael Marshall Smith's writing, and you like thrillers/crime books as well as SF, then you could do worse than check out Michael Marshall.

Tony Chester

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