This month, our Queen of Crime Fiction, Lesley Kenward draws our attention to another great set of holiday reads, ones guaranteed to send a shiver down your spine.
The thing about most crime novels is that it would probably be utterly terrifying if the events brought to life in them were actually happening to you. But you know they’re not. And you know that you are never likely to be visited by men carrying uzis, be caught up in a global conspiracy or be forced to protect a religious secret that will blow the lid off Pentecostalism. It’s generally a safe bet that a good night’s sleep will follow a couple of chapters and a Hobnob. Solving a crime on paper is a safe intellectual exercise. Now, I’m not suggesting that the reader should rush out and join the secret service in an attempt to be scared to death – they have entry qualifications, I understand – but if you can’t line up with Spooks professionally, how about spooks on paper?
There are far too few crime novels with an otherworldly element. It’s surprising really that more novelists happily exploring the apparently boundless evil of the human soul, aren’t attracted by the possibilities of fiendish bad guys with an ability to carry out their ghoulish plots uncontained by physical human limits. When it’s done well, it’s truly scary and suddenly you’re not so sure that the bad guys aren’t just waiting for you to turn the light off.
John Connolly does it best, particularly in his Charlie Parker series. I still remember reading the first of the trilogy, Every Dead Thing, first published in 1999 and winner of the Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel. I read it on a train, in daylight, surrounded by noisy, ordinary, travelling folk. I was still vaguely and uncomfortably afraid and cast a few worried glances at the other solitary passengers in my coach. The unearthly voices in a Louisiana swamp, the spectral appearances of Parker’s dead wife and child haunt the ex NYPD detective as he pursues the killer of his family, known only as The Travelling Man – hence, I expect, my anxiety on the train. The evil takes different forms in each book but, in the shadows of every one, lost souls and ghosts wait for justice.
I read the next two novels in the original trilogy – Dark Hollow and The Killing Kind – as soon as I could lay my hands on them. Dark forces constantly mass at the boundary between the living and the dead, sometimes so close that you can feel them breathing behind you. It’s probably best not to think too much about the only human barrier that stands between us and the abyss – Parker and his friends Angel and Louis who will make you laugh despite the paralysis of terror. I never read Connolly’s books alone at night but I couldn’t ever not read them.
I’m not usually a great one for the paranormal. I’d probably say I don’t believe in it at all but who wouldn’t love that extra element of fear that is generated by an unknowable, invisible, seemingly omnipotent enemy? The supernatural element works in John Connolly’s books because it’s only there in the background, exactly where real, scary, don’t-turn-round fear should be. The action in the forefront is human and very much of this world. He writes crime with complicated and inventive plots. He draws characters that you want to meet – I have often wanted to have a Starbucks with Connolly’s suave assassin Angel and his sartorially challenged partner Louis, both killers and both comedy geniuses. The action takes place in terrestrial landscapes and the diabolical enterprise of the one hundred percent human killers draws the reader in as in any well-constructed psychological crime novel. But, always there, stalking, lurking, leering and snarling and sometimes sobbing quietly are the creatures in the darkness. Connolly’s brilliance is in keeping them in the shadows. The unearthly things are never seen. We never know precisely what they are or what they might be capable of. Even the heartbreaking presence of Parker’s innocent dead wife and daughter is darkly petrifying.
All of Connolly’s Parker novels are a great read. Some are more brilliant than others and the first three are the most frightening. The only other writer I have come across who writes the sort of crime that can make you read through the night until it is finally light enough to exhale is Michael Marshall with his Straw Men trilogy. Read him too. But don’t blame me if sleep doesn’t come easy.
John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series includes: Every Dead Thing, Dark Hollow, The Killing Kind, The White Road, The Black Angel, The Unquiet, The Reapers, The Lovers and The Whisperers.