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Onyx reviews: Killer Move by Michael Marshall

An innocent man named John Hunter is released from prison after serving out his murder sentence for the death of the woman he loved. His empty cell door has barely slammed shut behind him before he sets out to even the score with the people responsible for his incarceration. He goes straight for the head of the suspected conspiracy, snatching him from his house and holding him prisoner in an abandoned construction site. There's no shortage of those in the Sarasota area after the housing bust. 

Bill Moore is feeling the crunch of this crisis, too. He's a realtor trying to make it big selling units in a posh waterfront gated community where the owners are unwilling to put any money into keeping up the properties. He has a five-year-plan that ends with him putting up his own shingle, though one of his friends advises him that "Bill Moore Realty" will probably be misread as "Bill More Realty," which isn't a message he wants to send to potential buyers. 

The housing bubble and the fact that he's already overshot his goal by a year and a half aren't Bill's biggest problems. Someone is messing with his life. It starts inno­cently enough. He receives a soft porn book from Amazon that he didn't order. Someone sends a politically incorrect joke to everyone in his address book. Then the stakes go up. It's not just a run-of-the-mill case of identity theft. The only hint that someone has deliberately targeted him is a series of cards he receives that contain a single word: Modified (which would have been an ideal title for the book). Things quickly go from very bad to ever-so-much worse.  His wife finds a folder on his home computer containing photographs of his female associate getting undressed. A wealthy businessman disappears. Bill's wife vanishes. People die. The evidence all points at Bill.

Michael Marshall, a British author who also publishes as Michael Marshall Smith and whose vocabulary occasionally betrays his origins, specializes in the paranoia thriller. People suddenly find themselves in the middle of a vast, unassailable conspiracy. Dozens of people are involved. The setup is elaborate and sophisticated. The noose tightens around the protagonist. There seems no way out. These books depend on a certain willing suspension of disbelief. The strongest argument against conspiracy theories is that there is always a weak link. Someone who can't keep up the pretense for as long as is required for the whole thing to play out. All it requires is one poorly placed card for the whole construct to collapse. There are never any weak links in Marshall's books. The conspirators have infinite resources. Often there are layers within layers of intrigue, and the lower-level players are as much victims as victimizers.

The presence of John Hunter gives the book an added dimension. He knows who set him up. However, he doesn't care a whit about Bill, and isn't above using him for his own purposes. He has no interest in sharing information with Bill or helping him out of his predicament. For his part, once Bill gets a peek under the hood at the scope of the organization that has pitted itself against him, his imagination runs wild. If these people are part of the plot, than what about those? Who can he possibly trust?

Marshall's novels don't always end well for the protagonist. Once they are so badly burned by the schemes aimed at them, their lives can never be the same. There are no get-out-of-jail-free cards in this game. Even the people who try to disentangle him from the web have their own agendas, which conflict with Bill's. 

The biggest flaw in Killer Move is the notion that the cabal responsible for framing Hunter seemed to be taken off guard when he was released from prison and started to "hunt" them down. The group's socio/psychopathic ringleader is a mastermind who should have anticipated this. Given their resources, they probably could have guaranteed that Hunter never saw the outside of the prison again.

One problem with the paranoia thriller genre is that, after a while, the books all begin to resemble each other. The details of how the plot unfolds may differ, but the end result is often the same. That said, once the vice closes around Bill, the book is relentlessly entertaining. The level of suspense doesn't ease up for a minute as the breadth and depth of the plot expand, ultimately bringing in Marshall's successful The Straw Men

At the end, Marshall waxes philosophical about how little imprint people actually leave on the world. How they can vanish and never be remembered once they're gone. It's an interesting insight, but is that what the book is really about? Or is it more about how really bad rich people are above recrimination no matter what they do?

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