Tuesday 22 October 2019

A Book of Bones by John Connolly: Malign spirits, murder and a forbidden tome

Thriller: A Book of Bones

John Connolly

Hodder & Stoughton, hardback, 720 pages, €16.99

Goosebump territory: Connolly perfectly balances the supernatural
and criminal
Goosebump territory: Connolly perfectly balances the supernatural and criminal
A Book of Bones by John Connolly

John Connolly's wonderfully realised main character, the former NYPD cop turned private investigator Charlie Parker, is, as fans around the world will know, highly unusual in his profession, in that he fights evil on two distinct fronts.

In our own normal, temporal world he helps to solve heinous crimes, but, as he knows only too well - and at his own terrible personal cost - there exists another darkly evil dimension parallel to our own where he must also do battle with the malign spirits who seek to break through to our world and corrupt it.

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In hands less skilled, this unusual alignment of two distinctly different genres might well be disastrous, but Connolly, to his great credit, has always managed with consummate ease to tread the extremely delicate line between rattling good modern police procedural thrillers and out-and-out spooky Gothic horror tales without alienating either fan base.

This latest Charlie Parker adventure, the 17th in the series, is essentially part two of last year's The Woman in the Woods.

In that adventure, Parker had been hired to try to establish the identity of a young woman found buried in the roots of a tree in the local forest in Portland, Maine, where he lives. But others are searching for her identity and possessions, too, including a mysterious and seemingly immortal English lawyer called Quayle and his murderous enforcer, the deathly white and extravagantly named Pallida Mors. Quayle is convinced that the dead woman, who had recently given birth, stole from an antiquarian book collector a forbidden tome called The Fractured Atlas.

Quayle is working for a dangerous and shadowy cabal who believe that when the atlas is found, and its missing pages reunited with it, it will allow the spirit world to finally extend its poisonous tentacles into ours and change it irrevocably. Parker, Quayle and Mors have a final showdown in Maine which sees Parker and his gay friend Louis wounded, and Quayle and Mors fleeing America for Amsterdam in possession of the incomplete atlas.

A Book of Bones opens with Parker about to give evidence in a Texas court against two notorious paedophiles he has brought to justice, but before he can take the stand, FBI senior agent Edgar Ross, his sometime boss, hauls him off to Arizona where a woman resembling Pallida Mors has been found dead in a junkyard.

Parker quickly establishes the woman is not Mors, and that the body is simply a ruse to keep him busy. He knows he must travel to Europe, so he and his friends Louis and Angel head for Amsterdam, where the Quayle and Mors trail has grown cold, and on to the old Inns of Court buildings in London where Quayle's family law firm has been based for centuries. When they arrive, they hear of a string of murders - more like ritualised human sacrifices - in Northumberland. Bodies have been discovered near the ruins of ancient churches that have carried with them through the centuries tales of hauntings and evil deeds.

While the local police, led by the efficient and charismatic Detective Inspector Nicola Priestman, try to get a handle on the mysterious deaths, Charlie gets a psychic warning from his dead daughter Jennifer telling him that the forces of evil in those northern churches intend to do him harm and are readying themselves for a final assault of the fabric of the universe when The Fractured Atlas is completed.

It is in this long middle section of the novel that Connolly's skill in balancing two distinctly different narratives is at its best; the police investigations are as breathlessly exciting as anything you'll read in mainstream crime fiction from the like of Michael Connolly or Harlan Coben, while the whiff of sulphur and indescribable evil that threateningly swirls around Parker and his friends is pure goosebump territory on a par with the best of Stephen King or Clive Barker.

A Book of Bones is a really well-crafted and absorbing doorstop of a novel, perhaps not one for a Ryanair holiday flight, as it weighs in at one kilo exactly and is 720 pages in length.

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