Books: Between fantasy and reality
Thriller: A Time of Torment, John Connolly, Hodder & Stoughton, hdbk, 469 pages, €29.50
Few Irish crime writers have had as successful a debut as former journalist John Connolly. He burst on the scene in 1999 with Every Dead Thing, a searing thriller that introduced to the world of fiction a former New York-cop-turned-private-detective called Charlie Parker, a man tormented by the unsolved murders of his wife and daughter. It was an enormous success on both sides of the Atlantic, earning the LA Times' Book of the Year accolade and in 2000 was awarded the highly coveted Shamus Award, the first time it had been given to a non-American author of private eye fiction.
From the start, Connolly set out to create a character who, as it were, had a foot in both camps. On the one hand, Parker is a conventional and insightful PI, adept at tracking his suspects using conventional methods. On the other hand, as one critic put it, he is a man for whom evil is not just a philosophical concept but a palpable presence.
As he says himself: "I have learned to embrace the dead and they, in their turn, have found a way to reach out to me".
What makes Connolly so massively popular is that he is so skilful at balancing the normal with the paranormal. The Parker novels never lurch into outright horror. Everything is hinted at, and even the terrible violence inflicted on victims is frequently left to the reader's own imagination, making it all the more terrifying.
Since Every Dead Thing hit the shelves, there have been 12 further novels charting Charlie Parker's ongoing one-man campaign to rid the world of evil.
This latest adventure, A Time of Torment, begins when a man called Jerome Burnel approaches Parker.
Burnel was once a hero. He had shot two killers as they attempted to rob a diner, but shortly afterwards he was convicted of possessing child pornography and sent to prison for five years where he was brutalised on a daily basis. Now released, his life in tatters, he wants Charlie to prove his innocence.
He is convinced that he was set up and that his downfall and daily torture has been deliberately orchestrated by the family and friends of the men he had killed, followers of a dreadful entity called the Dead King. The cult, he believes, is based in a remote part of South Carolina.
Parker is intrigued. He had his two gay associates, Louis and Angel, decide to investigate. If ever there was an odd couple, it is Louis, the tall and elegant black man with a closely cropped white beard and the short, plump and untidy Angel. The pair share a love for fine wine, each other and violence. When they arrive in Plessy County in South Carolina, the cult, who live in an untouchable and remote area called The Cut and are led by a man called Oberon, is ready for them. But Parker is a hunter, a man who has died and been reborn three times, and always takes the battle to those who are unjust.
Once again, Connolly walks the thin tightrope tethered between the twin towers of fantasy and reality with the aplomb of a Philippe Petit, delivering a satisfyingly vibrant blend of terror and tension while lacing the mix with his usual pot-pourri of wonderfully arcane facts. Who knew leaving corn out in winter for hungry deer can kill them? Or that the dried severed hand of a hung felon, a Hand of Glory, was once thought to render people motionless?