Saturday 15 December 2018

Parker faces battle of wills with villain on mission to unleash malevolent spirits

Thrillers: The Woman in the Woods, John Connolly, Hodder & Stoughton, hardback, 467 pages, €14.99

John Connolly. Photo: Mark Condren
John Connolly. Photo: Mark Condren
The Woman in the Woods by John Connolly

Myles McWeeney

Almost two decades ago, in 1999, a former New York cop turned private eye, Charlie 'Bird' Parker, made his fictional debut in a searing and seriously gory worldwide bestselling thriller, Every Dead Thing.

What made the novel stand out in a crowded genre was its Dublin-born author John Connolly's seamless marriage of the temporal and the supernatural - in a book filled with fascinating if arcane information on voodoo and magic, it somehow didn't jar that Parker was tormented by the spirits of his murdered wife and daughter and that they had been taken from him by The Travelling Man, a creature definitely of a different world. As theoretical physicists increasingly struggle with the concept of a multiverse, who is to say that other universes or dimensions don't sometimes intersect with our reality?

In this, the 16th chapter in Charlie Parker's ongoing battle with venal humanity and vengeful spirits, his lawyer, the sartorially-challenged Moxie Castin, asks him to look into the death of a young Jewish woman whose body has just been found buried in a Maine forest. It is clear that the young woman had just delivered a child, as it turns out a boy, but no child's body had been found. Is the he alive, and is he close by?

Working this time with the police rather than against them, Parker discovers that he is not the only person seeking the child.

In Dobey's Diner in Cadillac, Indiana, a young waitress, Leila Patton, spots a very odd couple. The man, Quayle, is English, is reading a book of poetry and is dressed like a dandy. The woman is as pale as milk and has a terrible odour. Quayle is on a quest to find some missing pages of an ancient atlas that will, he believes, when reunited with the rest, change the world utterly, handing it over to malevolent spirits.

Leila's soft-hearted boss Dobey is a multilayered individual. Besides running his diner, he is an antiquarian book collector and a member of a secret movement that rescues women in danger from violently abusive partners, sending them to safety in Maine via a chain of safe houses. When Quayle and his murderous sidekick Pallida Mons have extracted from the unfortunate Dobey any information he may have about the dead woman and missing pages, they set out on a killing spree of discovery that brings them quite literally to Parker's neck of the woods in Maine.

Meanwhile Charlie has been trying to identify the boy, who would be five-years-old now. He has no idea that the forces of evil are heading his way, but the benign spirit of his dead daughter does and she appoints herself the child's protector. It sounds odd, but Connolly somehow makes such a strange conceit seem matter-of-fact and utterly normal.

Parker is also having to deal with some local difficulties of his own. His black, gay, hitman friend Louis, staying with him while his partner Angel is recovering from serious surgery, took offence at a local hood's blatantly racially decorated monster truck and set it on fire. The man, the dumb only son of a powerful crime boss, is out for revenge, and manages to make the local police suspect Parker of murder, and his framing puts the young boy and his protectors very much in danger.

Connolly has deftly set the stage for a final confrontation between the forces of good and evil. He pulls it off with considerable élan, satisfactorily tying up all the threads of a complex and fascinating tale while cleverly leaving the door open for a future rematch of the battle of wills between Parker and Quayle.

One of the great joys of long-running detective series - such as Lee Child's Jack Reacher, Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus or James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux - is the opportunity it gives to accompany these fictional creations through their journey in life. Rebus rages against the dying light, Reacher's powerful body develops aches and pains, Robicheaux grows less tolerant of political correctness.

In Parker's case, his rage at the loss of his wife and daughter is dulling but his desire to seek justice for the powerless is brightening as each year passes. Over time we also get to appreciate how Connolly's richly evolving prose and his wonderfully eclectic reading list bring substance and weight to an often under-appreciated genre of fiction.

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