August 30, 2007


The Intruders. By Michael Marshall. William Morrow. $24.95.

      This is a novel in which no one is who he or she seems to be. More precisely, the people are what they seem to be, but not who. The book opens with a particularly appropriate quotation from Jacques Lacan: “How can we be sure we are not impostors?” And that is what The Intruders is about – who is real, who is not, what it means to “be real,” and what makes a particular person into that person.

      This is also a murder mystery. A multiple-murder mystery. Michael Marshall combines elements of noir detective story with touches of science fiction and fantasy, wraps everything in the sort of conspiratorial trappings that keep people focused on the Kennedy assassination and supposed flying-saucer landing in Roswell, New Mexico, and throws in a bit of numerology to tie everything together: “Our mathematics was created to honor the power of 9. To the power of the Nines. But the Nines themselves have become weak in the meantime, spiritualized, have even come to believe in their own cramped version of the lies. To believe that our power must be constrained, that we must enter life as a newborn – must hide in plain sight, just another tree in the forest. But the forests have all been cut down.”

      It takes a while to get to this nonsensical existentialism, though. First, Marshall introduces ex-Los Angeles cop Jack Whalen, who left his job and the city after 12 years on the force and now lives in a small town in the Northwest, where he is trying to be a writer, without much success. Visited by a childhood friend who is now a lawyer – Gary Fisher, who knows or thinks he knows a great deal about some very shadowy occurrences – Jack refuses to help Gary solve the murder of a woman and her teenage son. Then Jack’s wife, Amy, goes missing: she’s on a routine business trip to Seattle, but has not checked into her hotel and is not answering her cell phone. And then someone else disappears: a 10-year-old girl named Madison, in Oregon. Pulled into these interrelated occurrences – if they are interrelated – by a suspicion that Gary knows what they have in common, Jack begins the traditional-in-this-kind-of-book exploration that, traditionally, leads deeper and deeper into an underlying evil.

      Marshall (author of The Straw Men, The Upright Man and Blood of Angels) handles all this with expert pacing and a blithe disregard for any absurdities he finds along the way (and there are more than a few of them). Some of his writing is downright clever, as when Madison – who has unsuspected inner strength – declines to go to the police station with an adult who wants to help her: “She’d never understood how easy it was to deal with grown-ups, after you realized most of them were basically frightened of you. Sure, moms and dads were okay with their own children, but they always watched other children out of the corner of their eyes, as if all other kids were wild and ungoverned. And children could be, Madison knew. Little girls had a power and light all their own.”

      The narrative of The Intruders veers, sometimes shakily, from first-person to third-person, depending on what events are occurring and who is at the center of them. It eventually ends in Whalen’s voice, with the many mysteries solved but the future as uncertain as ever – a standard genre conclusion. The Intruders is, in fact, little more than a well-written genre book, its attractions coming from the difficulty of figuring out which genre (or genres) it fits into. It’s clever rather than smart – interesting while you read it, but not particularly memorable after you finish.

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