We Are Here (probably. Maybe. Allegedly. Behind you)

Book cover: We Are Here - Michael Marshall (white text on black, plus silhouettes of people in everyday poses)Author David is on the verge of his big break when he bumps into a stranger who follows him home – a stranger who is insistent that they have met before. Catherine Warren is being stalked, but when she asks ex-cop John to investigate, he slows realises that the truth is more complex – and more terrifying.

I really enjoy Michael Marshall Smith. I was bemused when he became Michael Marshall, and the more MM I read the less clear-cut the distinction seems to be. He is prone to a number of gender tropes that are going to annoy many readers (male-dominated cast; women tend towards feminine mystique, especially intuition, and provide emotional rescues in return for physical ones; they are unlikely to save the day), but he has a narrative voice, a sense of humour and a love of cats that I can’t resist.

That said, some of his recent books fall flat. The Intruders was the first, and Bad Things compounded it. I didn’t bother buying Killer Move for years, as I’d had my faith shaken. When I eventually did – and loved it in spite of its flaws – it put me back on track to read We Are Here as soon as a paperback appeared. I didn’t realise it was a sequel of sorts to Bad Things, or I might have hesitated.

Thankfully, We Are Here stands alone. It adheres to the MM template of a recognisably real, modern-day world (in fact, I suspect all his novels take place in a single mirror world, and the point is that our world is more mysterious than we like to think) and solid, everyday characters who come into contact with a mystery they cannot explain and are compelled to solve (and although two of those characters are survivors of Bad Things, there doesn’t seem to be any other link).

Intuitive, independent Kris(tina) is drawn to mysterious Lizzy, who is caught between her need to stalk Kris’ posh bookclub pal Cathy and her desire to move on. Lonely author David is unnerved and confused by the reappearance of his childhood friend Maj, but Maj has his own problems – and his enemies are quick to take advantage of this unexpected link to Maj’s past. Fierce, impetuous John is far too down-to-earth to see things that aren’t there, which is making it difficult to keep tabs on any of it – or handle the unseen’s invasion into his life with Kris. Ruthless criminal Reinhart and driven visionary Golzen have their own plans, although it’s unclear whether they have world domination or paradise in mind, but aren’t going to let Maj, John or Kristina get in their way. It can’t possibly end well.

The twist here is more MMS than MM [spoiler, mouse over to read]: half the cast may or may not be real. Do they have the talent to fade into a crowd or do they actually become invisible? Are they the lonely dead or the lonely ghosts of forgotten ideas? Can a figment of your imagination hurt you? (clue: yes of course it can)

This starts and builds well – paranoid, suggestive, the sort of thriller that has you yelling ‘DON’T SPLIT UP’ and ‘IT’S BEHIND YOU’. The tension ratchets well (the sequences in which David is stalked by Golzen’s siblings are particularly chilling) although the stakes remain unclear. And then – for me at least – it all comes apart at the end. The novel trips over its own pace; Kris/Lizzy reaches a satisfying conclusion, but the Reinhart/Golzen/Maj/John climax left me cold and felt unresolved – Reinhart had been a threatening shadow, and his motivations were perhaps too unclear for the showdown to make a lot of sense.

There’s a whole intriguing shadow world that I’d happily revisit though, so if the friends are explored further in a future novel, I’ll probably pick it up.