As a summer read, this novel is great fun. Under any other criterion, it is a disappointment. It's an odd, little booger. Do you blow it away, pick it out and distribute it to something else, or just eat it for its piquancy? As it settles in to the hours you give it, it gets comfortable and concedes some of its secrets out of naïveté. This is a debut novel, after all.
The pedal dropping, clutch popping part is when our protagonist—Ward Hopkins—while going through his parents' stuff after they've been killed in an automobile accident, discovers a note that says, "we're not dead"(p.34). Further rooting finds a videotape with historical but incongruous scenes of his parents. Obvious clues but maddenly inscrutable. No reader, nobody would drop this book at this point. You forage on, eyes become fevered searchlights, like those two kids in the woods who find that gingerbread house with sugar windows.
Inner-cut is a third-person narrative featuring two people of the law: agent Nina of the FBI and former "company" agent John Zandt who's joined some intestinal school for Revengers. In the past, they hunted down serial killers together, until The Upright Man took his daughter. Natch, a victim following the same MO has been taken.
What does any of this have to do with Straw Men?
While Nina and John bumble around to find the missing girl—she's hostaged between joists with a floorboard nailed over her so she can't move and only gets water to drink to keep her "pure"—Ward contacts old friend and past co-worker Bobby who's still active in the CIA to try and solve this grand conundrum. It traces to a multi-bazillion-dollared tract of homes in the Montana wilds; it ties into a hidden web site simply titled "We Rise"(p.239) which goes on to spume the screen demanding a return to humanity's Hunters-Gatherers era for its survival(1); it leads to houses getting blown up and people killed. Lotsa thriller action.
From philosophy's Logic branch, a straw man is someone during argumentation who deliberately misrepresents his adversary's position to make those objections easily defeated. And, just about everything in The Straw Men is camouflaged, just not so easily defeated. That's the fun side. The groan side, unfortunately, covers most of the building blocks of the work. Too many things, ah, just happen, like Wade's best friend just happens to still be connected to the CIA network for needed complex sleuthing. The characters fall too hard into cliche and too easily escape situations where they shouldn't; and, for some reason, Wade's nature seems wrong for the role. He's witty, but too flippant and snotty to like.
And, there are just too many mysteries cross-threading each other. For instance, Wade's big reveal at the end seems second-stage next to the less-meaningful fireworks of the novel's final act. It scatters the read and dilutes the thematic tension of abandonment verses abduction.
1) Sidebarring, it's an interesting but disemboweled argument how we've doomed ourselves by becoming farmers. Altering the land, you see, or "RAPING the earth and changing it to our own ends"(p.242), magnetized people together in villiages-towns-cities, delighting a virus looking for a host to call home that Cro-Mag brought from Africa that wiped out the Neanderthals. Herded together, it could spread easier. Ultimately, it's why we kill each other. Integration of the species through community is impossible and the only way to save the chosen lot of us is to parse down to the old scene of squatting around the fire holding spears. That's why "those who Kill will be free: Those who do not Kill are infected. Cleanse the planet. Kill the virus. Guns will make you strong"(p.244). Obviously, this is below even the KKK and on par with Nazi Germany. But interesting . . .