May 2004
© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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The Lonely Dead by Michael Marshall
Harper Collins (UK) HCVR: ISBN 0007163940 PubDate: 05/04/04
Review by John Berlyne (UK)

384 pgs. List price $ 10
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Michael Marshall (aka Michael Marshall Smith, the British author of Only Forward, Spares and a host of award winning short stories) cements his place amongst the great dark thriller writers with this sequel to his hugely successful 2002 novel, The Straw Men – reviewed here in our August 02 issue (See Review)

The dark and very dangerous conspiracy uncovered by Ward Hopkins in that novel has by no means been laid to rest. Rather it has deepened, creeping further into the shadows of history and spreading wider than Ward could ever have thought possible. Could it have been The Straw Men who were responsible for the centuries old mystery of the Roanoke disappearances? Ward’s associate and one time detective John Zandt certainly thinks so, but then again Zandt is neither the most stable nor reliable of characters given that he has been implicated in at least two gruesome murders and (in the eyes of the authorities at least) is now a potential suspect in the case of The Upright Man – an ironic situation to say the least, as this psychopathic killer murdered Zandt’s own daughter, thus beginning the cascading series of events that have led us to the tale told in The Lonely Dead. That The Upright Man, a killer of great skill, deft cunning and stylish insanity is also Ward’s own brother and only living blood relative, give this story a spicy dynamic that never looses its vice-like grip on the reader.

So, only Ward, Zandt and Nina, the gutsy and proud FBI agent are truly wise to the grand conspiracy of The Straw Men, and the blow dealt by this trio at the climax of the previous novel has led to them travelling through The Lonely Dead in constant fear of their lives. There’s a nagging feeling throughout (and one that permeates through to the reader) that they really will get you in the end!

One of Marshall’s supreme talents is his ability to give what is essentially a simple if classic thriller plot (killer kills, killer must be found, etc…) such a beautifully baroque atmosphere. This feeling of narrative largesse is created by the author’s immeasurable skill in characterisation. We really get inside these people, realising quite how much the rifts between the three principles that came from their common experiences have spread like fault lines through their relationships. What should have united them has in fact splintered and damaged these people, both individually and as group and the author’s masterstroke here is to use this as the furnace that fires the book. It is, I suppose the old classic approach that conflict equals drama, but it is handled superbly by Marshall throughout and – something I didn’t realise when I read The Straw Men – it is the pain that these people carry with them that gives rise to Marshall’s uniquely sardonic brand of cynicism and paranoia.

Loneliness is a tonal quality of this novel – both for the living and the dead. Some characters, like the antagonist, revel in their solitariness, the feeling of being alone feeding their air of superiority and aloofness. Others, Zandt for example, seem completely unable to cope with other people and so enforce a self composed exile upon themselves. There is the touching and sad loneliness of Patrice, widowed and withdrawn and even Ward and Nina need time to emerge from their own kinds of exile in order to find each other. And then there is the starkest depiction of all, as Tom Kozelek blunders drunkenly through a dark forest, his only intention to find some hidey hole in which he can settle before he guzzles a bunch of pills down his throat and takes the longest of all sleeps.

The Lonely Dead then is nothing if not a bleak novel – it set largely in wide open spaces, down long unmarked roads and the sense of isolation is ever present. And woven superbly into the story are insistent hints of the mysterious – not just in the murder mystery sense, but rather something other-wordly, something just off-kilter – could it really have been Bigfoot that Tom saw in his drug induced haze out there in the woods?

The Lonely Dead is a brilliant, powerful and utterly compelling follow up to The Straw Men. Very highly recommended.

© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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