Thursday 12 December 2019

Books: Darkness that lies at the heart of Prosperous

The Wolf in Winter, John Connolly, Hodder & Stoughton, Hardback €25.99

Writer John Connolly
Writer John Connolly

Anne Marie Scanlon

NEAR the start of The Wolf in Winter, the reader is introduced to a quartet of old geezers playing poker in Pearson's General Store & Gunsmithery in the town of Prosperous, Maine.

The older gentlemen are the epitome of ordinary, each with their own quirks and habits, all well known to each other. The scene is pure Edward Hopper – small-town America at its best. Prosperous is different from its neighbours. While other towns are hostage to fortune and the fluctuating economy, the citizens of Prosperous and the town itself always manage, as the name implies, to prosper.

However, as this is a John Connolly book, it soon becomes apparent that underneath the seemingly blessed surface there is darkness at the heart of the town – quite literally as the old church the original settlers moved brick by brick from the north of England to Maine shelters a very powerful force.

Most of the townspeople are descended from those original settlers and, while newcomers are not welcomed, defecting is not an option either, as hapless couple Harry and Erin Dixon soon discover. The four ordinary, almost banal, poker-playing gentlemen at the start of the book turn out to be anything but; their actions are doubly shocking as they at first seemed so harmless.

The Wolf in Winter is Connolly's 12th novel featuring private detective Charlie Parker. The detective is drawn towards Prosperous after the alleged suicide of a homeless man he's befriended. The town 'elders' don't want anybody looking too closely at Prosperous, and make it their business to put a stop to Parker's investigation, even if it means killing him.

The breadth of Connolly's knowledge, which includes dog squads in Vietnam, firearms and homelessness is astonishing. "It's a full-time job being homeless. It's a full-time job being poor. That's what those who bitch about the underprivileged not going out there and finding work fail to understand. They have a job already and that job is surviving."

Connolly's descriptions of places, like hipster capital of the world, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, are not only visually accurate but atmospherically exact. There are few writers who could manage to merge hard-boiled detective fiction with the supernatural and social commentary, but Connolly makes it seem easy. He blends everything so seamlessly, you can't see the joins. Most importantly, with the social commentary elements, the reader never feels lectured, it's instruction by stealth.

Fans of the Charlie Parker books will not be disappointed with the latest instalment about his odd life, as it contains Connolly's usual brilliance with plot, dialogue, setting, humour and writing that is at times poetic: "Now, as a chill rain fell on the streets, specks of light showed through the moth holes in the drapes, and they glittered like stars ... " only Connolly could sprinkle stardust on dingy drapes.

The Wolf in Winter also works equally well as a stand-alone novel. In fact, it might be an easier read for non-fans as those who have stuck with 'the detective' since the beginning won't be able to read it without a growing sense of unease. There is a fin de siècle feeling as everyone from Charlie Parker's past, friends and enemies, all return in one guise or another. As a result, unlikely alliances are formed and inconceivable deals are made. Most disturbingly, Parker's continued existence hangs in the balance which, for fans, is the most horrifying thing Connolly could ever write.

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