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The Straw Men is a novel by the British writer Michael Marshall, published in 2002. Marshall has previously published some well-received SF titles under the name Michael Marshall Smith, but following in the footsteps of Iain Banks and Brian Aldiss, Marshall has decided to swap names to denote a switch in genre.

The Straw Men will be found in the stacked up in the crime section of your local library or bookstore, although it would be just as snug in the horror section (there is nothing supernatural in the book, we're are safely in Thomas Harris territory here). The Straw Men is a book about serial killers. It opens with an exquisitely written scene set in a small American town you've probably never heard of, where a duo of gunmen open fire in a busy McDonalds fastfood franchise. This setpiece reels right into the book and is just damn enjoyable to read, notwithstanding the macabre subject matter.

The remainder of the book jumps between two storylines. The first is a first person narrative piece telling us about Ward Hopkins, a young man going home to bury his parents after they suffered a car accident. He encounters a video tape in the family home that suggests that maybe they are still alive. Investigations are pursued with and things quickly spiral as they typically tend to do. An friend who happens to be a CIA operative is enlisted to provide someone to crack wise with.

The second strand is in conventional third person and concerns John Zandt, an ex-homicide detective who is persuaded to come out of early retirement since it appears that the psycho who abducted his daughter has found another victim. So far so cliche. Luckily the writing is genuinely good enough to keep the reader interested and advance the plot in an interesting manner. If you've ever read anything by Michael Marshall Smith before then you will find the tone of the narrator a tad reminiscent of the protagonist of his earlier works. The ease of the tone that flows the story alone here also has the effect that the remaining tale concerning Zandt feels a little less engaging in comparison.

The book is excellent for the first 2/3rds of the tale, unfortunately once the two tales merge together the focus starts to wobble. Things aren't help with the discovery of the killers modus operandi which is suitably farcical and far-fetched to take you out of the story. We come to a conclusion which feels abruptly rushed, with just enough plot points left dangling for what seems like the inevitable sequel.

Despite these reservations, which may just be nit-picking, the book is a reasonable riveting read, although Michael Marshall Smith fans may be disappointed to discover there are no talking household appliances featured. My best advice is to read the prologue and then decide for yourself if you want to discover more.

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