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11-09-12: Michael Marshall Makes a 'Killer Move'


We seek permanence, stability and sameness. We want each day to be like the next, following the predictable routines that make us feel secure and protected. It's a very human trait, an intimately human desire, this clutching to the known. For most of us, most of the time, this is simply life as we live it, and it's almost beneath our level of perception. Until, of course, it comes undone.

In Michael Marshall's 'Killer Move,' the undoing of Bill Moore's life is announced by a single word on a business card: MODIFIED. Even before the announcement, things have begun cropping up, little incidents that by themselves, don't amount to much. Bill works at a real estate office, and the environment is intense. So he may not have remembered making sending an email, or making a phone call. And the upshot of these unremembered actions has been on the whole, good. But soon things tilt the other direction. Bill Moore's life goes from complicated to endangered without any clear crossing of boundaries.

Michael Marshall infuses his latest novel of suburban terror with a perfect level of paranoia and angst, combining domestic details with urban violence in a manner that seems both inevitable and surreal. Moore is a tense guy, and maybe not the nicest person you'll ever meet. His wife, Stephanie, is on the high-maintenance side of the equation, but all in all they are good people. Marshall writes them with assurance and flair, drawing us into their lives as he simultaneously pulls them apart. John Hunter, introduced in a creepy prologue, was once a nice guy, but no longer has reason to be one. Marshall's cast is full, well-rounded and realistic enough to be engaging in spite of faults that readers may share to one degree or another.

The plot is simple, but ultimately mysterious. Somebody is slowly and systematically destroying Bill Moore's life, and as they do, they leave those calling cards with one ominous word; MODIFIED. In this word, Marshall captures the essence of terrifies us most; change, which predictably usually ends up being for the worse. The ways in which Marshall undoes his protagonist's life are ingenious and terrifying even as they are grounded in everyday reality. Along the way, Marshall offers readers a detailed vision of a very personal American apocalypse.

Marshall's prose partakes something of the atmosphere of the novel; it's slick, smart and engaging, full of wonderful sentences that don't call attention to themselves. This is a novel that one is best advised to pick up early on a weekend day when you have nothing to do. You'll immerse yourself in the story and be lost within until it plays out, wanting to know not just the who, but the how and why as well. Marshall manages to create all kinds of tension on every level, which he deftly maintains and even notches up as the book moves towards a gripping finale.

'Killer Move' is a perfect example of what happens when you create a tense thriller plotline though an everyday life. Things go well without our knowledge and we are thankful for our foresight. But when our lives, our worlds go bad, our ignorance takes center stage, while the unseen forces that surround us plot our demise. Bill Moore's bad day, as it becomes an endless nightmare, gives us a means of seeing our own lives unravel. Seeing these inner struggles externalized as we read 'Killer Move' is the sort of unsettling meditation on life that is best experienced on the page as opposed to in person. Marshall knows how to, with great precision, shine a light on the darkness in our hearts.

11-07-12: Archive Review: Michael Marshall Smith Moves 'Only Forward'

One Wonder Among Many

Editor's Note: This book originally came my way via Mark V. Ziesing books, a reason to buy from his site and subscribe to his wonderful newsletter. It was my introduction to a writer who would, in the following years become one of my favorites and who remains so. Michael Marshall Smith's work incorporates humor, horror, fine prose and finely-drawn characters, sometimes in an utterly fantastic setting, such as you find in this novel, and sometimes in seemingly straightforward thrillers with a soupcon of the surreal and the fantastic.

Because of one of those oddball publishing quirks, Michael Marshall Smith is known in the US as "Michael Marshall." But you'll know his work instantly when you come upon it. This review is of a version of the book no longer in print; look for the Subterranean Press limited edition hardcover. This book won a 1995 August Derleth Award and, published in the US, A 2001 Philip K. Dick Award. It's available as a mass-market paperback in the US, easily found or ordered.If you've not yet read it, I envy you. You're in for a special treat.

If you follow the rules, science fiction novels are only supposed to have just one big surprise. You can have a world filled with a given technology and many wonders, but in that world you only get to spring something new on us once. In 'Only Forward', Michael Marshall Smith may follow the rules, but he does so in such an unorthodox way that it almost feels like he's cheating. The reader is delighted to see him get away with it.

Stark does not want to answer the phone. When he does, he's called over to the Action Centre, the part of town where all the highly motivated over-achievers live and work continuously. He's from Color, where the residents all agree to work together to create a continuous palette of beautiful colors. His shirt shifts to match the scenes he walks through. The world that Smith presents us with in 'Only Forward' is a fascinating mix of high satire, great writing and ingenious invention.

Stark's assignment is to find a missing man. It sounds simple enough, but Smith's world is constantly surprising, threatening, and wonder-filled. Stark manages to find his man, and then the novel introduces Smith's invention which, it turns out, was not the intricate world he has created and kept so fascinating. There's something really weird happening. Smith takes us right there to witness the unfolding.

Smith laces his prose with a lower-key version of the kind of British humor that makes Douglas Adams books so popular, but does not succumb to the cartoonish impulse that such satire can lead to. And he keeps his wonders wondrous, his surprises surprising. It's a difficult feat considering how high he sets the bar, but he manages it with aplomb. 'Only Forward' is a spectacular debut novel for a writer who has kept his promise to keep getting better.

11-05-12: Tom Wolfe Gets 'Back to Blood'

Triumph of the Swill

Beneath our world, there's another; the world of gut feelings, knee-jerk reactions, snap judgments and snide comments. Unfettered, the inner world has crept into the outer, and in Tom Wolfe's 'Back to Blood,' our externalized — not actualized, mind you, but simply externalized — selves are having one hell of a good time turning the world seven kinds of ugly. Wolfe's vision of Miami and a cross-section of its inhabitants as a microcosm for the country does not bode well. But if you can stomach the creeps and learn to laugh with them rather than cringing back from them, you'll find Wolfe in fine form and an incisive if uncomfortable vivisection of where you are only when it is too late to get away.

'Back to Blood' may seem imposing and even sprawling, but the words slip by so seamlessly it feels as if you've read a book half as long. From the beginning, Wolfe puts his readers in the minds of a mixture of the craven, the depraved, the deprived and the dignified. Nestor Camacho is the dignified, muscle-bound Cuban cop at the center of a daring rescue, a civic uprising, a love triangle and a gigantic, gnarly family. His girlfriend, Magdalena, works for a psychiatrist who specializes in Internet pornography addiction, the craven Doctor Norman Lewis, who manipulates his depraved patient, billionaire Maurice Fleishman.

To Wolfe's credit, he makes even the despicable WASPs engaging with his personal grammar of inner thoughts set off against external dialogue by rows of colons. Still, his characters do manage some pretty raw pornographic internal monologues, which some readers may find off-putting, and others hilarious. But carefully, with layer after layer of intricate plot and characterization, the pieces fall together to craft a portrait of Miami at a personal, political, economic, and cultural level that is powerful and affecting. Wolfe's characters are enjoyable to read about even if they're not people you'd want in your life.

Wolfe includes lots of info-dump journalism here, building his sharpening vision of the city with its immigrant populations as a plot of revelation. He shows and tells us how the racial and political tensions play out with satire that reads all-too-close for comfort. Reality television, YouTube and the Internet help pull apart the present to knit a much less certain future.

For all its divisive visions and its intimate attention to the immaturity of an aging populace, 'Back to Blood,' has characters we truly connect with to make this complicated novel read like a thriller that moves at the speed of thought. It's a sundrenched vision of civilization shriveling around the edges, of regression in the face of unstoppable progress and the ever-present power simple honor. Tom Wolfe is just the man to take us on this tour of ourselves, to those places within our country and our minds that rarely see the light of day. Wolfe opens the door on us and hands us a mirror. We may not be what we see, or like it, but, alas, we are legion.

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