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Onyx reviews: The Intruders by Michael Marshall

There are several different ways for an author to approach a paranoia thriller. He can present the story from the point of view of a character who buys into the conspiracy theory and try to convince readers to believe, too. Alternately, he can tell the story from the perspective of a skeptic, in which case the reader will probably be dubious. Either way, the author has the power to manipulate how readers regard the viewpoint character. Is he obstinately refusing to believe the truth or is he overly accepting?

In The Intruders, the protagonist, Jack Whelen, is a natural skeptic. He's a former LAPD officer who relocated to a rural home with his wife, Amy, an ad executive whose job affords her some flexibility about where she lives. After retiring from the force, Whelen published a book called The Intruders, featuring crime scene photographs taken with his cell phone camera and his stream of consciousness thoughts about the scenes. The book, almost an accident in the making, was a modest success. Having created once, Jack feels the need to do a follow-up. However, he's hopelessly blocked. By moving to Washington State, Jack hopes to break out of his creative funk.

(Though Marshall, who also publishes science fiction as Michael Marshall Smith, is British, he has a penchant for setting his books in the American Northwest. His diction and dialog often betrays his origins, which can sometimes be distracting.¹)

Marshall shows his cards early. After the day the story starts—"the last straightforward afternoon of my life"—nothing will ever be the same for Jack. As first person narrator, Jack identifies "the beat in time when it suddenly becomes clear that something in your world is badly wrong." And Jack waxes philosophical that he should have seen "it" coming—whatever it is. "The signs and causes were there…I'd tried to ignore them…so when it happened it was like falling off a log."

It's a little disingenuous. Jack is having it both ways—he knows what's going on and what's about to happen, but he only reveals enough to allude to the pending sea change, thereby preparing readers to expect strangeness. This is Michael Marshall, after all, author of The Straw Men, who has a reputation for tipping the world off its axis and concocting shadow conspiracies that hint more is happening on planet earth than people realize. Conspiracies that make The Da Vinci Code look like a second-rate criminal caper.

Before he teases readers, Marshall gets the show off with a bang. An intruder breaks into a house in Seattle and kills the woman and her son who live there. The assassin, a man later identified as Shepherd, is looking for the one person who isn't present—the man of the house.

Two phone calls herald Jack's downward spiral. One is from Gary Fisher, a high school acquaintance who is now a lawyer. He and Jack haven't seen each other since graduation and didn't have much in common as teenagers other than a brief intersection involving a classmate who committed suicide. Gary tries to get Jack interested in investigating the Seattle murders by telling a strange story of a millionaire's eccentric will that raises more questions than it answers. Jack pushes Gary away, unwilling to get involved in the bizarre story the man wants him to believe.

The second call comes from a cab driver who found Amy's cell phone in his car in Seattle. When Jack calls the hotel where she's supposed to be staying, the receptionist has no reservation in her name. Jack borrows a neighbor's car and drives to Seattle to find his wife. He soon unearths indications that Amy has been keeping secrets, including photographs of her with a strange man on her cell phone. And then—hey presto—it turns out she isn't missing after all. Though she's back and acting as if nothing untoward happened, her behavior bothers Jack. Something is definitely off kilter—and getting worse.

In parallel, Marshall tells the third person stories of hit man Shepherd, who carries plain business cards bearing only his name, and of a nine-year-old girl who vanishes from the beach house where her mother has gone to sort out her head from a strained relationship. For a little girl, Madison proves to be resourceful beyond her years, coercing strangers into helping her get to Seattle and surviving alone on the streets. The nexus of the conspiracy seems to be an abandoned, decrepit building in Seattle used as a front for a mysterious organization.

A palpable sense of dread permeates the book as Jack feels his comfortable, reliable world slipping away—but it's not the putative conspiracy that's responsible, it's the sense that his marriage is…not so much crumbling as evaporating. The notion that the woman he has known and loved for years is becoming a stranger to him is as devastating as anything that comes later.

More people die, but is the book a crime novel or a horror novel? Is it supernatural or a straight thriller? The less readers know beyond what Marshall is willing to reveal the better their enjoyment of The Intruders will be. Suffice to say it is an involving enigma with an intriguing postulate that could easily be fodder for future tales.

¹ The copy of the book used for this review was published by Harper Collins/UK in April. The American edition will be published by William Morrow in August.


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