Rough Beasts Slouching…
The Straw Men
I have my friend Rosemary to thank for coming across this barnstormer of a novel from 2002. She has been confined to the house of late and so I’ve gotten into the habit of picking up books for her occasionally. She enjoys the serial killer sub-genre of crime fiction and so a glance at the inside cover led me to think that I was pretty safe with this one, because it certainly comes under that jurisdiction (ahem) but oh boy, it is so much more!
I thought that I would read the first few pages of Michael Marshall’s The Straw Men before I gave it to her, just to make sure that it wasn’t a complete loss. That was it: two days later I closed it again, pretty sure that she’ll be as hooked as I was.
The current and continuing fascination with fictional serial killers in TV, Cinema and novels probably really began with the intense interest in that inexplicably charming cannibal-genius Dr. Hannibal Lector; and Marshall subtly acknowledges this early on with a sly mention of The Goldberg Variations. Later, though, he is careful to remind us that these real life murderers are rarely as organized or as charismatic as their fictional counterparts. (Although the sick part of me wonders if that’s because those ones just never get caught.)
Here we have an utter bastard and kidnapper of young girls who calls himself The Upright Man being hunted by John Zandt, an ex-Los Angeles cop who has himself lost his daughter to the lunatic. He has been brought back into the case—which had been thought concluded– by an old partner, Nina.
Running parallel to this is an investigation by Ward Hopkins, ex-CIA and his friend Bobby (who is still serving with the Agency) as they try to discover what has happened to Ward’s parents. They soon find evidence of a global conspiracy that appears to be run by a group of extremely wealthy sickos who go by the name of ‘The Straw Men’ and who have literally been working for decades to completely destabalise ordinary society in order to justify their own bizarre theories of human evolution.
If this sounds totally paranoid, that’s because it is. What keeps the reader going through moments of frowning doubt is the fine writing, which—switching seamlessly from the first person to the third person perspective—takes side-trips into the minds of the various characters.
Be warned: even by the standards of this kind of novel, there are images here that will leave many readers quite shaken. This is a very, very black narrative. What stops it from being a total downer is the unexpected flashes of humour throughout:
“When I get to their age, I’ll resent young people, too. I resent them already, in fact, the slim little fresh-faced assholes. I don’t find it surprising that super-old people are so odd and grumpy. Half their friends are dead, they feel like shit most of the time, and the next major event is going to be their last. They don’t even have the salve of believing that going to the gym is going to make things better; that they’ll meet someone cute in the small hours of a Friday night or that their career is going to suddenly steer into an upturn and they’ll wind up married to a movie star.
“[They’re moving] onto a flat, grey plain of aches and bad eyesight, of feeling the cold in their bones and having little to do except watch their children and grandchildren go right ahead and make the same mistakes they warned them about. I’m just surprised that more oldsters don’t take to the streets in packs, swearing and raising hell and getting drunk. With demographics going the way they are, maybe that’s the next big thing. Gangs of octogenarians, taking drugs and running amok. Though walking amok is more likely, I guess—with maybe an hour of dozing amok in the afternoon.”
I know just what he means.
Cameron Diaz is Stalking Me.
One character muses that if he was really famous he would take to stalking ordinary people. He imagines Joe Soap going to the cops and complaining that Cameron Diaz or Tom Cruise keep following them and sending letters—‘look, that’s Tom’s handwriting’– whilst the authorities shake their heads. “You could really push someone over the edge with that”, he says.
Horrifyingly, I even found myself agreeing with The Upright Man’s thinking at one stage:
“He believed deeply in individuality, in its crucial importance to humanity. These days everyone watched the same ludicrous movies. They stopped smoking because they were told to do so by people who meanwhile crammed themselves with fat. For the convenience of others. They lived their lives by rules designed by those others, by people they had never met. They lived on the surface, in an MTV and CNN world of the last five minutes.”
As the two plot strands inevitably come together, the novel moves into territory that is of deep interest to me: the not-so-original idea that the Internet has been heavily responsible for making those with extremely deviant behavior-patterns feel that they are ‘normal’.
After all, if there are so many out there with the same abnormalities and who can be contacted with relative ease by a quick web search, then you can’t be all wrong…can you?
Very, very scary stuff; and something that makes me think that perhaps our own race is in need of a bloody good culling. Then again, I’ve never had too much faith in my fellow humans. As Nina muses:
“If you looked at what our species did to its own kind and to other animals, you had to ask if we didn’t deserve whatever we had coming to us, whatever autonemesis we brought merrily into being; if the rough beasts that slouched towards Bethlehem were anything more than our own prodigal children, coming home.”
After the first blistering couple of hundred pages I couldn’t see how Marshall was going to be able to tie up the themes convincingly in the pages that he had left; and to a large extent that is true. There is in particular a rather large plot hole that is hard to ignore.
As it turned out though, this is the first book in a trilogy. So for the moment I’ll reserve judgment, whilst at the same time recommending the very uncomfortable outing that The Straw Men will bring you on; but take along a strong stomach for the ride.