Today, my blog will undertake a new project. Yes, yet another project that will come out in nowhere near a timely fashion. As my friends and family know I am an avid reader of Rue Morgue magazine which focuses on horror in all aspects of popular culture. It is, in short, the thinking man's Fangoria. A few years ago I read their article on the 100 best horror novels and decided to read them all. Every--- single--- one.
And I'm going to be sharing my opinion on every single one of them you my dear readers. I'm going to read them in no particular order but I will read them and discuss whether or not I think they are any good. Aren't you lucky?
First up: The Straw Men by Michael Marshall.
Let's get the first thing out of the way. This book is the first in a trilogy that deals with the efforts of Ward Hopkins, ex-CIA agent, in opposing the enigmatic criminal/terrorist organization that call themselves the "Straw Men." I actually the second book in the series some years ago and was left unimpressed (SPOILERS: If the end of your gritty thriller novel about a serial killer involves telepathic Neanderthals, reconsider your ending.)
By all logic, I should hate the "Straw Men" as well. And I will admit that there are some parts of the story that seem to tread into ridiculousness. (The "Straw Men" are implied to be behind pretty much almost everything bad that has happened for the last sixty years from the Altamont concert shootings to the war in the Middle East).
And yet it works. The story is a murder mystery dual investigation plot where two seemingly separate investigations turn out to be connected. One plot follows Ward Hopkins as he discovers evidence that the car accident that killed his parents may have been deliberately arranged. His search leads him to a gated community called the Halls, which is run and inhabited by members of the Straw Men. Hopkins is left trying to find out his parents' connection to the organization, a search which leads to disturbing revelations about his own past.
The second thread follows Jim Zandt, a former police officer who left the force after his daughter was abducted by a serial killer called the "Upright Man."When the "Upright Man" returns, abducting a fourteen year old girl named Sarah Becker, Zandt is called in by his ex-lover, FBI agent Nina Baynam to assist in the investigation.
This sounds like pretty formulaic crime thriller fair but make no mistake-- "The Straw Men" is a horror novel. The Straw Men's philosophy feeds into one of the most basic fears- that human beings are hopelessly corrupt on a fundamental level and that it is not evil, but rather virtue, that is an aberration. The book contains some scene that can only be described as nihilistic (the revelation of what animals the Straw Men keep in their stables is incredibly bleak and depressing).
Plus, Ward Hopkins is good lead. Just enough of a shady past with government that it's plausible that he could survive the unlikely scenarios he finds himself in but with little enough combat experience, that it's clear that he is completely in over his head. It makes the stakes so much higher and thus, his victories so much more rewarding.
The ending of the book as befits a trilogy is open-ended, leaving room for the next book. But trust me when I say that reading the sequel is a massive waste of time, especially because of Marshall's decisions to introduce science-fiction elements to the plot. The first book has enough a resolution that I was satisfied but that's a subjective judgment and if you're the type who absolutely need to know what happens to the characters in a book series, you might want to give it a miss.