For 20 years I’ve been reading books by the author variously known as Michael Marshall Smith and Michael Marshall, beginning with his sci-fi triumvirate of Only Forward, Spares and One of Us – three mind-slappingly entertaining thrillers – and moving through his Straw Men series as well as various creepy standalones.
Now he’s writing under a third pen-name, Michael Rutger, and the first book is The Anomaly. As soon as I saw it, I picked it up. I still have those early MMS SF books on my shelf, despite having lived in Japan for 10 years – I took them with me both going and coming back. So I came to The Anomaly with plenty of baggage.
It opens kind of slow and steady. We’re introduced to Nolan, a conspiracy/occult theorist with a youtube channel show, who at first blush appears kind of a loser/drip. He failed in his Hollywood job, his wife dumped him, everybody (even his film crew) think he’s kind of a laughing stock. He’s all washed-up, constantly going out to these sites where supernatural phenomena allegedly occured and looking for them, only to find nothing.
Yet pretty soon we get to see Nolan is none of these things. Yes, he has a ribald mocking relationship with his crew, and yes he is aware there’s some exploitation going on in all his failed searches for some evidence that the truth is out there – but he’s also kind of a bad-ass. He is incredibly knowledgeable, and speaks engagingly both on and off-camera about the deep research and flaws in scientific thinking surrounding the places he goes to visit. When an accompanying reporter digs in and insults him, he digs right back.
He is not a wimp. He has a backbone, and beneath the surface-level kookiness and veneer he exploits for his show, he really is asking interesting, informed questions about the things we do not know. I got to really like him quite quickly – he’s unapologetic about his out-there views. He can back up everything he says with facts. He’s not afraid to go toe-to-toe with anyone.
The story of The Anomaly is about Nolan’s latest planned adventure with his crew – he’s discovered this 100-year-old record of a secret cave embedded in the wall of the Grand Canyon, which nobody has ever since been able to find since, apparently crammed with evidence that subverts our current understanding of human origins.
Now I’m interested. It takes quite some time for the team to get to the Grand Canyon, then get down into it, then go hunting for the cave – but I was really engaged throughout. Interpersonal dynamics offer plenty of conflict – all of the above character work letting Nolan show he’s not really a washed-up loser, he’s just wearing the clothes of one. Really, he’s just a smart, competent, hard-working guy who’s fallen on a patch of bad luck.
The way MMS (Michael Rutger) feeds in real-world info through Nolan, about bizarre cave paintings and great flood records and other occult-adjacent theories, is entrancing. I would definitely watch this youtube show if it existed – kind of a wannabe Indiana Jones, putting himself out there for the sake of deeper understanding.
Then we get to the cave.
We go into the cave. I won’t say much more because that would be venturing into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that I don’t think I’ve ever felt scared like this when reading a book. I don’t know that a book has ever really scared me. Grossed me out, sure, but actually scared?
It was delightful. As the crew press deeper into the cave, and long before anything at all happens, I was feeling tingles down the spine. It was late at night. I stopped reading.
I don’t know what magic trick the narrative worked to make me feel this way. I’ve been in dark, creepy, off-limits caves plenty of times and never felt like this. Like this is a really dangerous place where we shouldn’t go, and I almost want them to turn back. I suppose this is an effect of the characteristation Rutger has built up by that point – I cared about Nolan and his banter-filled crew. I wanted them to do well.
Then it all goes crazy. Weird things happen – MMS kind of sci-fi, puzzlebox, inexplicable things. I loved it. I raced through the puzzles, gamely trying to figure out what was going on just like the characters were. It feels a bit like an Escape Room situation, like Saw even, at times. The stakes are high. The puzzles keep stacking up. The truth gets bigger. The reversals compound…
I loved it. I want more like this from MMS. Nolan is a guy I want to root for through multiple adventures like this on the fringe of science and belief. Michael Marshall Smith has been tapping this well in fresh ways since One of Us, and I think he’s hit an incredibly rich seam here. Like Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon, with his expert knowledge of symbols, Nolan is an expert in esoterica and knowledge at the fringes. He’s an X-Files kind of guy, rootling around at the edges and sometimes stumbling upon real, creepy stuff. What will he do when he finds it?
Yes. More please. 5 stars.