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'The US is deeply depressing. I'm not sure I want to visit any more' - John Connolly

John Connolly tells Darragh McManus why he is thinking of selling his home in Maine, and the reasons for turning the clock back in his Charlie Parker crime series


Prequel: John Connolly wanted to go back to a younger, angrier Charlie Parker. Photo by Iván Gimenez Costa

Prequel: John Connolly wanted to go back to a younger, angrier Charlie Parker. Photo by Iván Gimenez Costa

The Dirty South by John Connolly. Photo by Mark Condren

The Dirty South by John Connolly. Photo by Mark Condren


Prequel: John Connolly wanted to go back to a younger, angrier Charlie Parker. Photo by Iván Gimenez Costa

Oh, John Connolly - how easy it would be to hate you. The author has led the sort of charmed professional life that makes literary wannabes, past-its and never-weres want to root out the voodoo doll and get busy with the pins.

Connolly wasn't yet 30 when his first thriller, Every Dead Thing, sold to publishers in a million-plus deal in the late 1990s. Then working as a freelance journalist, he swiftly jacked in that illustrious trade for full-time crime-writing - and what a career it's been since. Connolly, with his blockbusting Charlie Parker series, sells millions to a devoted global fanbase, has snared all the major awards in his field and even been adapted by Hollywood.

But it's hard to dislike the Dubliner. For one thing, he's a talented guy, so it's not as if this success is grossly unearned. Secondly, he is famously genial and easy-going. I've met people who were charmed by him at book signings, and interviewed fellow authors who love sharing public appearances with him because he is so cheerful and entertaining.

Today, he is in fine form as he promotes The Dirty South, novel number 18 in the Charlie Parker series, which began with that 1999 debut and also includes a novella and miscellany.

This latest is set in 1997, making it a prequel of sorts to Every Dead Thing. Troubled ex-cop Parker, still reeling from the murder of his wife and daughter and chasing leads on their killer in Arkansas, finds himself helping an investigation into the horrific murders, apparently connected, of three black girls.

Dodgy money, dodgier politics, grift, corruption and plain old ineptitude - not to mention a rich Old South family who are dysfunctional to Tennessee Williams levels - stand between Parker and justice for the girls.

"Within a series, characters build up a lot of history, which is one of the reasons people read so much mystery fiction: it's so character-driven. We get to return to them, year after year," Connolly says. "For this one, I thought it might be nice to throw away all that weight of history, and give new readers a different point of entry into the series.

"I could go back to a different Parker: younger, angrier. And people can now read the other books - especially Every Dead Thing - very differently. In that way, a prequel can actually change the books that came after it."

Connolly well knows the pros and cons of writing a long-running series. "The advantage is that you have an awful lot of loyalty from readers," he says. "They have that affection for these characters. Writers who do standalone books don't have that in-built loyalty to quite the same degree.

"The disadvantages are that writers can get a bit tired. It's difficult to find new, imaginative ways to say it. You're trying to reinvent the wheel each time. It would be easy to simply repeat yourself, and you have to be conscious of not doing that. One of the ways I try to get around it is by going off and doing other things."

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This is true: Connolly's more than a straight crime writer. For starters, his Parker thrillers incorporate strong elements of the supernatural, even horror.

But he has also spread his wings professionally, producing works of fantasy (The Book of Lost Things), horror (the short-story collection Nocturnes), literary fiction (He, an exploration of Stan Laurel's later years), non-fiction (Books to Die For, co-edited with Sligo author Declan Burke), three books in the Samuel Johnson series for children and, with partner Jennifer Ridyard, the Young Adult trilogy Chronicles of the Invaders.

The Parker novels are set in Maine, where Connolly owns a house: "I felt I should have a base in the place I wrote about. And pay some taxes. Otherwise, you're kind of just a tourist, dabbling in it, unless you spend time there," he says.

He used to divide his time between Ireland and the US but has not been over there since last year "because of everything that's happened" - and is thinking about selling up.

"I'm not sure it's a society I want to visit any more," he says. "And it's just going to get worse. The middle ground has largely vanished in America: moderate, reasonable; however they vote. That's become increasingly narrow, and now you have a committed section on the left, a section on the right, just shouting at each other.

"It's an increasingly fractious society. There's such a high level of violence and gun crime. And the problem of race is still so huge, you look at things like voter suppression… It's deeply depressing."

For all that, he speaks warmly of the people of Arkansas - "a delight to deal with" - and their help when he was researching The Dirty South. "On an individual level, Americans are great," John says. "When you get large groups of them, it can become problematic. But again, that's true of a lot of humanity."

Outside novel-writing, Connolly has a second life as radio DJ, hosting the thoroughly entertaining ABC to XTC on 2XM, the RTÉ digital station. Every Sunday afternoon, he shares his "love of punk, post-punk and New Wave music from the late 1970s to the early 1990s".

He describes himself as "like all writers, a reader first and foremost", though he does not consume as much crime fiction as he once did.

"I do love first-time writers. I'm curious to see what's coming along, and what they're bringing to the genre.

"And I like supporting the next generation; they'll be keeping readers entertained when I'm dead and gone," he says.

"But I'm at that age where I'm conscious of all the gaps in my knowledge; all the books I haven't read, so most of my reading tends to be classics, older fiction - not recent at all. You can get overwhelmed by all the new stuff; you can spend a lot of time running to catch up."

'The Dirty South' by John Connolly, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now

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