Book review: A Song of Shadows

THE title of this novel appears generic and forgettable and almost indistinguishable from hundreds of others in the same field. 

Book review: A Song of Shadows

John Connolly

Hodder & Stoughton. £7.99

However, the dexterous handling of plot and subplot complexities have to be admired.

But despite that and the obvious comprehensive forensic and scientific research that went into the making of the novel, it is difficult to be drawn into this story with any degree of sympathy for the characters.

Indeed, some of the research on the Nazis as the platitudinous bad guys is so detailed that it distracts the reader and becomes almost an authorial rant in the middle of the work.

While it ticks many of the boxes of what constitutes a good thriller as adumbrated in studies such as John Scagg’s Crime Fiction, nevertheless as a reader one is conscious for most of its duration that this is a work being created before one’s eyes, a fabrication rather than a really credible account of human beings.

There are too many characters whose names are confusing initially and the narrative drive is frequently held back wih blocking technicalities: one senses the author is at times showing off and a little bit condescending as for example when he not only recounts but actually explains chief suspect Steiger’s ailments which included ‘hyposmia and hypogeusia — decreased abilities to smell and taste’.

The author’s striving to be ultra-modern with references to Netflix or to appear overly-politically correct renders the writing twee at times as when Ron the househusband of chief of police Corry Bloom prepared the evening meal: ‘She’d told him that she’d be home well before six and he would have aimed to have food on the table at seven… she had a vision of a blackened meal and a sulking husband’.

Connolly shows an intimate knowledge of locale which in this story is the Maine town of Boreas, a German stronghold and haven for Nazi war criminals.

But it all paradoxically seems far away and vague as if it is a composite of many towns wilfully Americanised which is the market the book is obviously targeting with spelling and uses such as ‘the fall’, ‘traveling’, and ‘realtor’.

This is despite it being published in the UK by an Irish author who comes across as deracinated with the only touch of Irish perhaps rising in him subliminally in the Irish names of Walsh and Bloom.

The story does pick up, however, and there are good moments of mounting tension in the gradual and tantalising exposure of the Nazi murder links as private investigator Charlie Parker tries to identify the suspects at the same time as Steiger, fearing discovery, prepares to move in on his prey.

The ghosting references where some of the criminals take on a dead person’s identity constitutes a key element in the novel and work well.

Concerning the prose, some sentences are so obvious they are downright corny, for example: ‘Empathy was not in his nature’ is inserted after we learn of the sadistic killings of Steiger.

But Connolly can disclose a lyric side as Parker watched the daughter of his neighbour and his own living daughter walking among the rockpools: ‘Fearless little purple sandpipers hopped among the rocks at their farthest point, where the waves still broke upon them, the winter yellow of the birds’ legs now almost entirely gone’.

As regards Parker, he is sometimes portrayed as a superhuman character: Bloom, referring to a previous escapade, ‘knew that his heart had stopped three times [no less] after the shooting’ and the supernatural references to Parker’s dead daughter, which end the novel, are hard to believe.

  • James Lawless is a poet and novelist.

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