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Blood of Angels

Blood of Angels - Michael Marshall I have a bad habit of getting songs stuck in my head when I see something that makes me think of them. Book titles are one of those triggers, and a lot of times the titles don't even need to be that close to make me think of the song. Most recently, it happened with Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation ("Illumination" by Rollins Band), and now it's happened again with Blood of Angels ("Blood of Eden" by Peter Gabriel). I also find it interesting that of the last eight books I've read, three of them have been set in some way in Key West, but that's a different sort of curiosity that has nothing to do with music.

Blood of Angels is the last book in the Straw Man series, which are suspense novels by Michael Marshall (Smith), whom I've noted before as being a dark, nihilistic author with a strong understanding of human nature. This novel is no exception, as it winds up being a story with a negative outlook of people and plot (there are several moments of abject hopelessness throughout the story), but with some amazingly astute reflections on people. It's about the three main characters, Ward Hopkins, the brother of a serial killer, Nina Baynam, an FBI agent who has been following the case, and John Zandt, an officer who lost his daughter to one of the Straw Men, wrapping up their investigation into the killings. The story is tight and tense, and the more you read it, the more compelling it becomes.

Of particular note in this book is the slow evolution -- or devolution, depending on how you see it -- of someone acclimating to a life of crime. There are two stories interwoven in the novel, both of which have to do with the main story from the entire trilogy, and one of them is about a young man named Lee Hudek who starts out as a small-town drug dealer and becomes one of the members of the Straw Men. It was a weird sort of story, since Lee was a sociopathic charmer who wasn't quite someone you despised, but also wasn't quite someone you rooted for, either. He reminded me a little of Todd from "Breaking Bad" in that respect.

The thing is, the entire premise of the novel hinges on the acceptance of a league of serial killers who have been around for thousands of years. It's been hinted at and danced around in the first two novels (as near as I can remember; it's been about seven years since I last read a book in this series), but in Blood of Angels, we get the full backstory, speculative as it may be, and it goes back about 9,000 years, and its sole purpose is, to quote The Dark Knight, "to watch it burn." The basic idea is that the Straw Men saw culture developing around the world after the end of the last Ice Age and decided that they liked the world better before civilization came along, and the conspiracy since then (which, I should add, includes the creation of religion and the church solely as a means to fight back against the killers, even if the organization has since lost sight of that fact) has been a concerted effort to bring it back. It's a little silly and ridiculous and unbelievable, but luckily the story focuses so much on the plot that it becomes easy to overlook that silliness. But it does rear its head from time to time, and it always made me roll my eyes. At one point, someone new is brought into the fold after a string of events forces him to either join or go to jail, and when he accepts, his parents suddenly arrive and tell him how proud they are of him. Really? Really?

The ending of the book was a little disappointing, too, given that Marshall has taken three books to build up not just this big conspiracy, but also this confrontation between Wade and his twin brother Paul, and then finishes the story without having progressed any further down either road. One would expect either story to be resolved, if not outright beaten, but no, we get to the end of the story where the principle characters survive, but nothing has been concluded. The Straw Men are still out there, and regarding Paul still being alive, all signs point to yes. What was the point of the entire series if this is how it's concluded?

The book is definitely stupid when Marshall tries to give it this sort of gravitas, but when it lies outside of that conspiracy, the story really flies. It's not a lean book (Marshall's insights into human nature tend to run long, though they're generally worth it), but it's a taut one, and I think folks who like good suspense stories or police procedurals would find a lot to like here.