There are certain literary devices that one finds commonly: there are narrative devices (flashbacks, different voices, etc.) and there are plot types that seem to be universal (family strife, hidden Nazi gold, cults, etc.). However, just because these elements are common, doesn't mean that they are usually executed well. More often, one will find an intriguing idea let down by poor writing, or conversely, brilliant characters in a world where nothing particularly compelling happens.
Happily, in the case of "The Uglimen" neither of these things is true. The story opens in L.A. in 1969 as two rather bedraggled and undeniably terrified Britons flee from an undefined, but very real, danger. The story then flashes forward to London in 2001 where Rob Loomis' world is turned upside down when his father inexplicably commits suicide. Obviously these lines must intersect, but it is some time, and an additional flashback before the linkage is made clear. It's difficult to give an idea of the plot without spoiling it (the book is only 144 pages after all) but generally speaking it revolves around a stolen religious relic and the attendant cult that wants it back.
Now, the religious relic/cult theme has been done to death in countless other novels, some good, far more bad. Fortunately, Morris manages to inject some original elements, which combined with his superb pacing and excellent characterization makes for a book that is a fantastic read. First off, Morris creates a cult that is two-tiered, being made up of extremists and a more benign movement that is wrapped up in the hippie culture of the 1960's. As a result, motivations are never clear, and it is nearly impossible to predict the course events will take. Secondly, Morris packs several surprising twists into this novella. Given the limited length, such changes could be jarring or contrived, but in the author's capable hands they only serve to ratchet up the tension.
However, what makes this book genuinely remarkable is the understated, but pervasive theme of family. The interaction between Rob and his mother in the wake of his father's death is beautifully rendered. Their grief practically leaps off the page; clearly Morris writes from the experience of having lost someone near and dear, and anyone who has faced such a situation will immediately realize how on the mark he is. Beyond the death, however, is a remarkable look at the relationships between parents and their children, particularly their adult children. Morris has deftly captured that moment that happens to all of us when we realize that our parents had a life before us, not a theoretical one, but one, which contained triumphs and failures, and things that are unknown to us. Such a revelation can be uncomfortable, but it can also lead to a greater awareness of one's parents as human beings with wants and needs the same as one's own.
"The Uglimen" is an entertaining, beautifully written novel. From its puzzling beginning to its rather shocking conclusion, it tells a story that is both scary and engaging. The phrase "I couldn't put it down" is used all too often and is one I shy away from, but in this case it is absolutely true. This is a book that should certainly be purchased if the opportunity arises, but beyond that, it should be actively sought out.