Tales from the dark side

Crime has definitely paid for John Connolly, who has sold over 10m books. He talks murder with Richard Fitzpatrick

CHARLIE PARKER is back working another case. The Wrath of Angels is John Connolly’s tenth in the Charlie Parker series, excluding a novella.

While out shooting, two old friends track a wounded buck into the bowels of a forest. They happen upon a small plane, half gorged almost by vegetation, with no evidence of any survivors, but with a suitcase stashed with $200,000 and a list of names. The pair makes off with the cash, but it’s the “hinky” list, as Parker would say, that causes all the bother, as its contents trigger a god-awful chase and murder piled on murder.

Those on the trail as well as Parker and his homosexual enforcers, Louis and Angel, include Rabbi Epstein, a hunter of fallen angels, the fastidious Collector and Brightwell the Believer, the vile, miserable man with the distended neck or “the form that vengeance would take when it comes”.

The novel is set in Maine, in the north-east corner of the United States, where Connolly owns a home (he also has a house in Dublin). The underbelly of the state’s towns features, although it’s the scenes in the wilderness which captivate. We forget sometimes how vast the American outback is, and the type of characters it breeds.

“Most of Maine is just deep forest with very few people living in it and the people on the outskirts are largely people who went to get away from other people,” says Connolly. “They want to live their own lives. They engage in that they might make a little bit of money out of tourists in the summer, who come up that far, or they may make money acting as guides for hunters and providing places for them to eat and things, but they’re very much their own kind up there.

“It’s quite interesting. Writers are always looking for readymade metaphors. Here, you’ve got these lovely seaside towns along the coast and poor towns in the interior with a landscape that is gorgeous in summer and early autumn and then turns into four or five months of hard winter. Those contrasts are appealing because they add a drama to what you’re doing.”

Connolly has sold over 10m books. One of his great skills is how he builds a story. In addition to countless well-drawn characters, and an elaborate plot structure, The Wrath of Angels is peppered with lots of hard-boiled turns of phrase. Women in their mid-30s don’t put on weight, they spread slightly; a tasteless, hard-up tailor “had clearly never met a piece of polyester he didn’t like”.

The dialogue is usually coy, dancing between flirtation and suspicion. “Are you fishing for compliments, Mr Parker?” asks the detective’s female client. “No. I figure that pond is all fished out.” The murders are audacious, rooted in the supernatural, a far cry, notes one character, from the reality of most murders, which are mundane, and invariably bungled because they’re carried out by first-time criminals.

“Most people are killed by people who know them,” says Connolly. “Most women are killed by their partners. It should be examined, but I’m not necessarily sure that crime fiction is the best place to examine it. People don’t read crime fiction to see their own society reflected back at them. They kind of want an escape from it. They want to examine some of the issues raised in a slightly more interesting, safer, marginally less disgusting way. If you were to write about crimes the way they really happen it would be dull and vicious and unpleasant. You would learn very little about the nature of people from it.

“Police would say that murders are relatively easy to solve. Most murders are spur of the moment. Most people don’t plan a murder. Even when they do, they don’t tend to be very good at it. If they do commit a murder, they’re suddenly left with a body and a lot of blood with no way to get rid of it. Murders don’t tend to be committed by professional criminals. Burglaries and car robberies are committed by people who know what they’re doing.”

Connolly is in love with murder. He and fellow crime novelist Declan Burke commissioned the world’s top crime writers to write about their favourite crime books in Books to Die For. Elmore Leonard, Jo Nesbø, Donna Tartt et al were given a bottle of rare Midleton whiskey for their endeavours. Much as Connolly likes crime, though, he could never see himself in Charlie Parker’s shoes.

“They lead the dullest lives,” he says. “My friend worked as a private investigator and most of what he did was insurance claims. People who say they got hit by a car and can’t walk anymore; then you follow them for a week until you catch them on camera picking up sacks of potatoes and tossing them over their shoulders. He spends most of his time reading in a car.

“The only time when someone from his agency was ever shot was when this recruit on his first day was sent out to do an insurance job, to take pictures of a guy who’d made an insurance claim to make sure that he wasn’t faking it.

“This guy crawled onto this other guy’s property and crawled into a space where he could photograph him. A guy came out with about eight guns and laid them on his table. For the next three hours, the guy lay on the ground under fire because he’d wandered onto this private shooting range. He went back and quit that afternoon.

“That’s the truth of it, of life as a policeman or a private detective — long periods of dullness interspersed with very short periods of being absolutely terrified.”

* John Connolly’s The Wrath of Angels is published by Hodder & Stoughton on Aug 30.

JOHN CONNOLLY’S BOOKS TO DIE FOR

The Black Echo: by Michael Connelly: Connelly was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. On his first day on the job as a crime reporter, he was sent to investigate a bank robbery. Los Angeles has tunnels underneath the city. These guys had gone into the tunnels in all-terrain vehicles, parked underneath a bank, using another tunnel they’d dug underneath Wiltshire Boulevard and a false wall, robbed the bank, and retreated again. That was the basis of The Black Echo. Connelly said, “I didn’t even have to make it up.” But a hundred writers could have been given that story and would have messed it up. Everything about it is right and it’s very rare to find that with a first novel. It’s got a great plot, a great setting, everything fits together.

The Chill by Ross Macdonald: Macdonald was the last of the great Californian crime writers, the father of psychological detective novels. The Chill is one of the best-constructed mysteries ever written. You just can’t see this one coming at you. He’s just so, so good.

Books to Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels, edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke is published by Simon & Schuster.


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