The very best supermarket paperbacks usually have at least five definitive elements: Conspiracies, serial killers, angst-ridden cops, the CIA or the FBI and, perhaps, a vampire.
“The Straw Men” by Michael Marshall (2002, Jove Books, New York, N.Y., $6.99, 389 pages) comes close to perfection.
It lacks the vampire, but more than makes up for the missing bloodsucker with non-stop action that bounces from Pennsylvania to Montana and California like a BB in a box car. There are something like 70 people murdered in the first 20 pages and I guarantee that you won’t have the slightest idea what’s really going on for the next 250 pages or so.
“The Straw Men” is, in part, the story of Ward Hopkins, a former CIA operative who scuttled away from the agency after it instituted lie detector tests to ferret out corrupt agents (of which he was one, but not a really bad guy otherwise).
Hopkins has traveled to Dyersburg, Mt., for his parents’ funeral following their deaths in a traffic accident. The visit is relatively uneventful – although Hopkins does manage to startle several bar patrons by pulling a gun and bellowing incoherent commands at them for no apparent reason.
But then our protagonist decides to explore his late parents’ home and inadvertently begins untangling the remnants of a decades-old mystery.
Things start getting weird when Hopkins sits down in his father’s favorite chair and finds a paperback novel in which he subsequently discovers a note which informs him that his parents aren’t, in fact, dead. Except they really are.
(You’re following all of this, right? Take your time, it gets considerably more complicated).
Before long, Hopkins also has found a hidden videotape of a zany ’70s party starring his parents and some other badly dressed people, plus some video of a secluded compound for the very rich or very, very evasive. There’s also footage with greetings from his parents when they were considerably younger and some shots of them abandoning a small child on a city street.
What’s it all mean?
When Hopkins tries to find out, things get a little sticky. So sticky, in fact, that someone enthusiastically bombs his parents’ house, riddles an elderly neighbor woman with bullets and blows up his motel room.
Not long after that, he finds out that he wasn’t born where he always thought he’d been born and that Lazy Ed, his hometown bartender, is keeping a lot of dark secrets.
Meanwhile, a serial killer known as “The Upright Man” has been kidnapping young women, shaving their heads and using their hair to embroider sweaters. He, in turn, is being pursued by no-holds-barred former homicide detective John Zandt and sharp-tongued FBI agent Nina Baynam.
Perhaps most intriguing of all, though, is the fact that all of these seemingly unrelated incidents are, in fact, very related, and they’re about collide with devastating effect.
Don’t take my word for it. Get thee to a supermarket and find out for yourself. Grab a six-pack and one of those roasted chickens from the deli case while you’re at it – you’ll probably work up quite an appetite with “The Straw Men.”
Originally published November 03, 2002