Sunday 19 November 2017

Connolly and parker are out for justice

It's 13 years since Irish writer John Connolly made history by receiving a then unprecedented £1.3m advance for his debut novel, Every Dead Thing. The book introduced his character Charlie Parker, a haunted ex-New York City cop turned private investigator.

With a few exceptions (he's written a standalone novel, two children's books and a novella), Connolly has been writing about Parker ever since and has just published his tenth book in the series, The Burning Soul.

"I've always been going back and forth to him," says Connolly over some strong coffee in a quiet village cafe. Success hasn't outwardly changed the writer. He's still wearing the same dark clothes like he always has done, the same type of cross strung on a leather strap sits at his throat.

"When you start writing, you don't necessarily think you're going to be writing 10 books about someone. In fact you don't think you're going to get one published. And then you have one published, and a second one published and you realise you're in it for the long haul."

Connolly made a decision early on that his character would not be stuck in time, like so many other detective characters. He decided things would happen to Parker, often bad things; that he would have a memory, that he would age; and that over the course of the books, there would be a meta-narrative, something bigger going on to keep both writer and readers engaged.

"John Sandford said at one point he'd intended to kill off [his detective] Davenport after a number of months and then he realised that he couldn't do it for a whole lot of reasons, some of them commercial, some of them to do with the fact that people develop an affection for a character.

"As a writer, how do you keep something fresh and keep yourself interested?

"After two books, I realised there were two ways to do it. The first is you perhaps try to do other things so you come back to this thing with new enthusiasm and you feel like you're learning new skills, you feel like you're stretching yourself. And the other is to have it like Hawaii Five-0, so every episode was an episode unto itself. You didn't watch Columbo to find out more about him -- he never changed. And for a long time crime fiction was like that."

So Connolly decided he would write a sequence of books "where each book follows on independently, where in each book something larger is happening in the background, in much the same way that television has changed.

"You watch The Sopranos because what you like is that each week you get a separate snatch of life but you're watching something bigger being built, brick by brick, episode by episode.

"That was the decision I made: that the books were going to change and they were going to be moving towards a kind of conclusion and there will be something larger in the background."

This way, Connolly says, he still gets to enjoy what he writes.

"It means that you're never going to make huge leaps in readership because people get intimidated when there are 10 books in a series. It does require a leap of faith on behalf of the reader to pick any book up at any time."

His new book is almost standalone in that it does not refer back to what Connolly calls "the mythology" of the previous Parker books.

As a result, the next Parker book will embrace all his history. "It's a natural reaction as a writer, if you've done A this year you're going to do Y the following year."

The Burning Soul tells the story of Randall Haight, a man carrying the weight of his secret past sins.

As a teenager, he and a friend killed a 14-year-old girl. Having served his time, Randall has moved to Pastor's Bay to rebuild his life but someone has discovered his secret and when another teenage girl goes missing, Charlie Parker has to find out who is lying. There are unavoidable echoes of the Jamie Bulger case in the book.

"I had begun writing it and all of a sudden the Bulger killers came back and intersected the book because it's asking: 'What happens if you take a child and jail him for a crime that was committed as a juvenile?'

"A lot of the US states deliberately try children as adults because if they're tried as juveniles they're out in a short period of time. It's not a justice system, it's a system of retribution."

Connolly is clearly animated by the subject, saying he likes to sneak that kind of stuff into his books.

"They're books about social justice but you don't want them to appear that way because the reason most people read is to pass the time."

The violence that characteristed Connolly's first books is all but gone from his novels. Nowadays, he's much more relaxed.

"I've got two kids, two dogs, two fish, and a very easy-going partner, I'm much more mellow than I used to be."

The Burning Soul is published by Hodder & Stoughton, €13.99.

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