Books: John Connolly proves he's still got licence to thrill
Myles McWeeney on a worthy addition to the Charlie Parker canon
With sales worldwide counted in the multi millions and a slew of literary awards, former journalist John Connolly is one of Ireland's must successful thriller writers. In the mid-1990s Connolly was working as a freelance journalist for the Irish Times when he decided to try his hand at a thriller. It took him five years of hard graft, revision and a fat file of accumulated rejection slips to get Every Dead Thing, the first Charlie 'Bird' Parker novel, published in 1999. As it turned out, the long slog was worth every minute.
Set in rural America, as are the 12 subsequent instalments in the conflicted former-cop-tuned-private investigator's battle with evil, Every Dead Thing was a big hit with readers on both sides of the Atlantic. It topped the best seller's lists on this side of the Atlantic and won the LA Times Book of the Year Award in 1999. The book also scooped a coveted Shamus Award, awarded by the Private Eye Writers of America for the best detective fiction genre novels and short stories of the year, in 2000, making Connolly the first non-American writer to win.
Connolly's Parker novels are deliberately different from modern mainstream detective fiction in that they all contain a potent dash of the supernatural. Parker is quite literally haunted by the spirits of his brutally murdered wife and young daughter, and believes that another dark and demonic world, packed with monstrous evil beings, exists in parallel with our own.
From the outset, Connolly determined to try to mix genres. He didn't want to do the same stuff others were doing, however excellent it was. His second book, Dark Hollow, blended in a fairytale element, The Killing Kind drew on religious history and classical ghost stories as a theme and The White Road drew on Greek mythology for its inspiration.
He happily admits to admiring Irish supernatural authors such as Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker, and you can see a definite influence of what is known as Southern Gothic, the work of authors from the American South such as William Faulkner and, currently, James Lee Burke, in his voice. Like Connolly's Parker, James Lee Burke's main protagonist, Louisiana Detective Dave Robicheaux, is acutely aware of another shadowly glimpsed surreal dimension.
Connolly's villains are also wonderfully OTT, grotesque, malevolent and horrific creatures like Mr Pudd in The Killing Kind and The Travelling Man who killed Charlie's wife and child. This, he says, is as a direct consequence of his admiration for Ian Fleming, one of the first 'adult' authors he read as a teenager. He loved the awfulness of characters like Mr Big, Blofeld, Dr No and Auric Goldfinger, and has little time for the crop of anodyne baddies in the current movie franchise. He suggests that if people are truly bad, quite literally rotten to their core, then their festering moral corruption will manifest itself in their physical appearance.
He was also determined from the start to set his books in America, although, as he says, it is a place he has very mixed feelings about and not somewhere he would want to live permanently, finding it both welcoming and threatening at the same time.
He did not want to write about "famine, religion, sexual repression, Britain, terrorism (and) how often it rains in Limerick", things Irish writers, he felt, were expected to dwell on. He does an incredible amount of research on the ground in America before putting pen to paper, and now knows the Eastern coast of New England so well there is a tourist's guide to Maine on his website.
This 13th Charlie Parker mystery, A Song of Shadows, brings us to the town of Boreas, an enclave of German immigrants, in Maine. Parker has come here to recuperate from the horrific beating and gunshot wounds that left him for dead at the close of the previous book, The Wolf in Winter. Now separated from the mother of his six-year-old daughter Samantha, Parker's troubled history has preceded him, and those who recognise his name from lurid newspaper reports are not exactly pleased at his presence, sensing, quite rightly, that trouble is never far behind him.
What they don't know is that his two close friends, professional criminals and killers as well as lovers, Angel and Louis, are keeping a discrete if distant eye on him. Unable to help himself from taking up the cudgels for the weak and victimised, Charlie soon makes friends with Ruth, a lonely Jewish widow and her daughter Amanda, who live in a remote house close to his own beachside villa.
Ruth, it turns out, is running from her mother's past, and the forces that are threatening her have their origins in the Second World War, in a town called Lubko and a concentration camp that was unlike any other.
It appears that old atrocities are about to be unearthed, and old sinners, among them those who have issues with Parker, are moving towards this small and, as it turns out, not so innocent in parts, New England town about to wreak terror and destruction on its inhabitants. Only Charlie, weak and wounded, stands between them and death.
Beautifully written as always, Connolly's latest and very worthy addition to the Parker canon, piles thrill upon thrill while uncovering some uncomfortable truths about the moral duplicity that existed in the chaos that followed the defeat of the Third Reich.
A Song of Shadows, John Connolly, Hodder & Stoughton, hbk, 448p, £14.99
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