The best of both worlds
Thriller: A Game of Ghosts, John Connolly, Hodder and Stoughton, hdbk, 464 pages, €18.49
John Connolly's unique ability to successfully combine crime and horror shows no sign of waning.
In contemporary crime fiction, Dubliner John Connolly is a very unique voice. With world-wide sales counting well into the millions, he has managed to place the main character in his books, former New York cop turned Maine-based private detective Charlie 'Bird' Parker, in two distinctly different worlds and make him a believable and charismatic character to two totally different popular-fiction audiences - crime aficionados and horror fans.
On one level, the Parker novels - this latest is the 15th in the series - are pure, hard-boiled private eye adventures in which Connolly tips his hat to the classic works of authors such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross MacDonald, writers whose books he admires and says influenced his choice of genre for his own literary endeavours.
But on another level, the otherworldly elements of the haunted Charlie Parker, which insistently break through into the narratives, are the result of his fascination with the supernatural themes in the ghostly Gothic works of Irish writers such as Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker, and Britain's MR James. It is a measure of Connolly's skill as a writer that he can pull off the neat trick of keeping a believable balance between the two, never tipping too far in one direction or the other.
What marks out Parker from other fictional private eyes is that he is, quite literally, haunted. His ghost is his dead daughter, Jennifer, whose ghastly murder and that of his wife Susan at the hands of a mysterious supernatural entity called the Traveling Man, formed the basis of Connolly's first bestseller, Every Dead Thing, which was published in 1999.
When things are looking bad for Charlie, as they often do, Jennifer tries to warn him by writing on misted windows or steamed-up mirrors, and in this latest instalment in Charlie's life and adventures, she is a pretty constant presence at the periphery of his consciousness as the combination of supernatural and temporal challenges facing him are as terrifying and dangerous as anything he has faced before.
She has also become the invisible companion to Parker's other daughter, nine-year-old Sam, who is beginning, Parker suspects, to develop some unusual psychic skills herself. Embroiled in a custody battle with Sam's mother, his former partner Rachel, Parker must try and protect his daughter from a mysterious group called The Brethren which, as one of the characters puts it, "exist in a kind of limbo - a crawl space between worlds full of cracks and crevasses and small dark corners, all places to conceal and be concealed".
The Brethren are the descendants of an apocalyptic 19th-century frontier sect founded by a man called Peter Magus who claimed a great angel had spoken to him directly. The sect had been all but wiped out more than a century ago in a massacre that the current members referred to as the Capstead Martyrs, and although they live quietly and separately all over America, they unite into murderous mode if knowledge of their activities is about to be revealed.
Parker has been caught on their radar because his FBI controller, Edgar Ross, has asked him to investigate the disappearance of another private detective, a man called Jaycob Eklund. But Eklund, it turns out, is no ordinary investigator. He has been obsessively tracking a series of homicides and disappearances, each of which is linked to reports of hauntings. Parker soon discovers people that Eklund has interviewed are being dispatched in various gruesome ways, so he and his associates, former contract killer Louis and Puerto Rican burglar Angel, find themselves in a race against time to find out what is behind all the killing.
It all seems to point to a sinister widow, a monstrously evil woman called Mother, who is systematically dismantling her dead husband Caspar Webb's criminal empire, to the chagrin of their inept son, Philip, who has the ambition, if not the smarts, to take over his father's mantle.
As the bodies begin to pile up and Charlie, Louis and Angel frantically try to get ahead of the ruthless killers, more of Charlie's otherworldly opponents reappear.
It's as if the spirit world gets an announcement 'Parker's on the prowl'. The Hollow Men, who first appeared in 2007's The Unquiet, gather gibberish silently when another killing is about to happen and The Collector, the greasy-haired, lean, mean killing machine who smells of cheap tobacco and who first entered Parker's life in The Wrath Of Angels (2012), is also sniffing around the case, which is very bad news indeed.
Connolly's skill in weaving the two elements of the parallel universes Parker inhabits means that A Game Of Ghosts doesn't flag for a second. It is also beautifully crafted - an unattractive woman is described as looking "as if she had been created from the scavenged pieces of others", and his scathing put-down of the popular meme of angel lore as "a lucrative industry involving imagery that owed more to fairy tales and the pre-Raphaelites than the Bible", is absolutely priceless.
This 15th outing leaves the reader wondering if the end may be in sight for this Maine-based PI. Parker is physically battered, feeling all the lacerations and wounds from his previous brushes with mortality, and his friend Louis, fearless in the face of violence, is shrinking at the medical indications that all is not well with his body.
Even in fiction, it seems, old age is not for the faint-hearted.