All series authors struggle to keep the franchise fresh, with varying results. Some age their characters in real time, some slow the aging process. Some stop it. Books are written out of sequence, telling of events that took place before already released novels. The past year has seen two top-list authors shift focus to their series’ regular sidekick. Last year brought Robert Crais’ award-winning THE WATCHMAN, a Joe Pike story with Elvis Cole in support. This summer unveils John Connolly’s THE REAPERS, featuring Charlie Parker’s friends and abettors Louis and Angel as protagonists; it should be no less successful.
The story begins by looking back to Louis’ father, burned alive by racists in a redneck town. Nightmares bring the Burning Man to Louis with unnerving frequency, even now that he has retired from THE REAPERS, an elite team of professional killers. A former colleague turned nemesis has returned for vengeance on those he feels wronged him, and Louis and his partner Angel must take action to save themselves and those close to them, no matter how extreme the action may be.
Louis and Angel will seem more sympathetic to those who have read other Connolly books, where their efforts to do good with their lethal skills show their desire to turn away from Louis’ previous career. Parker’s eyes and troubled sensitivities see how similar their demons are to his and leavens his judgment. Here the darkness inside their personal motivations is more fully explored—especially Louis’—with less benign results.
Connolly keeps THE REAPERS from becoming a nihilistic festival of destruction by counterbalancing them against another bit player from previous episodes, Willie Brew. Sixty, a Vietnam veteran, Willie runs a small auto shop with his friend Arno that operates partly as a front for Louis’ money. Willie has no involvement in Louis’ other interests, their relationship is as deep as Willie’s acknowledgement that Louis bailed him out when he was in danger of losing the shop in a divorce. Willie knows Louis is bad news, just not how bad. He respects Louis for helping him and asking little in return, but knows nothing is free.
Willie does what he thinks is right, even when he doesn’t want to. He becomes involved in Louis’ plight because he feels an obligation to someone who has been good to him, despite the conflicts what he might have to do to fulfil his self-imposed obligation. Louis kills because it’s what he does; his developing conscience must accommodate killing a relatively innocent man because of a potential future threat, or as collateral damage, because he is too close to an immediate threat, an egg in Louis’s omelette of survival. Willie’s conscience has no such peace. He must choose between possibly killing men who mean him no harm, or abandoning a man who would kill for him. He is swept with increasing rapidity into the maelstrom of Louis’ danger in an effort to return a favour. No good deed goes unpunished in Connolly’s world.
The second half of THE REAPERS is an extended gunfight on multiple fronts. The ending unfolds through the eyes of several participants, none of whom knows all of what is going on, giving the reader glimpses into the minds and hearts of all. Some bad guys have been swept up almost as innocently as Willie; some of the good guys are there only to kick ass. Connolly’s palette consists of shades of gray that exist only in the mind; some darker, some lighter, with no bright line of separation.
He pulls it off with elegiac and poetic prose worthy of James Lee Burke. THE REAPERS never disintegrates into operatic carnage. The pace of the writing remains introspective throughout, denying the conventional wisdom of shorter, choppier, sentences to convey action and imply tension. Connolly has all the tension he needs in the dark world his language creates. Humour is plentiful; the usual banter between Louis and Angel lightens the mood when needed while showing the bond between them, two early-middle-aged gay men nagging each other like an old married couple, but with the coarse humour men reserve for their friends. Not the easiest thing to pull off, it’s highly effective when handled by someone with Connolly’s talent.
Beneath the carnage, THE REAPERS is about commitment and obligation. Angel knows Louis’ plan is based on incomplete information. He goes along because he goes where Louis goes, unconditionally, no matter how much he bitches about it, and he knows their original team is there for the money; only he will look out for Louis. Willie Brew will risk his life for a man he barely knows and fears more than he respects because Louis has been good to him, and he knows Louis would do the same for him, even if their motivations would be completely different. Parker arrives late and makes up for lost time by diving in without any plan at all, because Louis and Angel have been there for him without asking why, or how their contribution fits.
These qualities are juxtaposed against the selfishness of their antagonists, and contrasted to the good-soldier innocence of some of their opponents, to create a book that is much greater than the sum of its parts, and its parts create a substantial sum. THE REAPERS allows Connolly to look at his characters from outside of their own perspectives and see them as other see them. The supernatural elements that work so well in his other books (especially THE BLACK ANGEL) aren’t needed here; frank examination of good and bad, how they overlap, and how each can be used in the service of the other fills the spaces between the lines. THE REAPERS can be read as one hell of a thriller, but those who read it for that purpose alone are cheating themselves. – Dana King
This review was first published at the New Mystery Reader
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.