It is not easy to label Michael Marshall’s latest book. Is it a mystery? A psychological thriller? Science Fiction? Horror? As you might have guessed, it is all of those things wrapped up in a complicated and compelling package.
The plot of The Intruders starts out pretty basic. Ex-cop Jack Whalen has recently left Los Angeles for Washington State. Jack quit the force after the publication of his artsy coffee table book and his wife’s work in advertising allows her to live in this idyllic town east of Seattle and commute to the various company offices when needed. Jack is having trouble getting started on his second book, but other than that everything seems to be going well.
That is until an old acquaintance from high school tracks Jack down and asks for his help in solving the mysterious double murder that opened the book. Jack demurs but is slowly pulled into the mystery as a strange series of events seem to connect his wife to the case. His search for answers leads him deeper into a complicated – and unbelievable – conspiracy and into the ghosts of his own past.
At some point, however, the plot switches from standard mystery/thriller to paranormal or science-fiction/fantasy. The explanation at the bottom of the mystery involves a twist that is beyond the normal conception of human existence. I can’t say more without giving away the plot.
There are a couple of things worth noting about The Intruders without spoilers. First off, although the plot elements and structure is pretty standard – open with a murder, introduce the lead character, slowly reveal clues, etc. – the writing is above your standard mystery. Jack’s world weary and yet edgy personality is well drawn. The dialog and the exposition – full of black humor and philosophical ruminations – are crisp and interesting while at the same time help sustain the creepy and vaguely dangerous tone. Jack’s thoughts about life and death provide a kind of running commentary as the plot plays out.
Marshall does a good job of providing just enough information to keep pulling you along. There are clues and red herrings throughout and plenty of plot twists to keep the reader guessing. The narrative switches perspective as it follows different characters and this helps control the novel’s pace and ratchet up the tension.
If there was a character that felt a little off, however, it was the nine year old girl Madison. Madison’s personality and actions are key to the plot, but at times they felt a little forced. I could see Madison as a compelling, and very creepy, character in a TV series or movie – the BBC is going to create one based on the book, I believe – but on paper it is a little harder to pull off. I can see why Marshall chose to structure the plot and character is this way, but it didn’t always work for me. The story often slowed way down when the narrative switched to her perspective.
In addition, as others have noted, the switch from creepy thriller/mystery to something quite different creates an odd transition and ending which leaves a lot of questions hanging. If you are looking for the author to wrap up all the loose ends you will be disappointed.
The first part of the plot is handled so well that when it becomes clear that this is no longer a standard mystery you feel a little disorientated. What might be called the paranormal aspect of the story is there in the background for most of the book but it is easy to assume there will be a conventional, albeit surprising, explanation at some point. The story takes you from meditation on the complexity and inherent mystery of human nature to a plot twist that reveals that what we think of as human nature is something else entirely. This switch leaves a lot of questions and the ending thus has the feel of the first book in a series. The ending is both darker and less clear than might have been expected.
What is clear, however, is that Michael Marshall is a imaginative and talented writer. Despite its initial straightforward structure, The Intruders is a well written and intriguing book that defies simple labels. It is highly entertaining but also thought provoking. It will make you think about relationships, memory, and what makes us who we are as people and as human beings. It is a novel that will have readers hoping to hear more from Marshall and his characters.