The supernatural has always been a consistent element in John Connolly’s novels and short stories. This is particularly true of the Charlie Parker novels, in which Parker, a private investigator, finds himself drawn to manifestations of evil that luridly and unabashedly tap into the world’s folk narratives to prod at readers’ primal fears. It’s a clever piece of marketing, to blend two of literature’s best-selling genres, in crime fiction and horror, but it takes even cleverer writing to splice the genres convincingly. Connolly is by now the acknowledged master of the gothic noir.
In recent years, the supernatural has become less and less a presence in Connolly’s novels, to the extent that last year’s The Reapers was a revenge tale with no supernatural aspects at all. The demons are back with a vengeance in his latest offering, however, as Charlie Parker investigates the circumstances of how his father, Will Parker, a well-respected and responsible policeman, came to shoot to death two teenagers in an apparently unprovoked attack, before turning his gun on himself and committing suicide.
Charlie Parker is plagued by two kinds of demons in The Lovers. The first, the supernatural and more literal kind, have been sent to eliminate Parker at all costs, for fear of what, or whom, his investigations might eventually lead him to. The pair of demons, male and female, are eternal lovers who return to earth time and again, always finding one another, always engaged in their lethal trade.
The second kind of demons are the metaphorical kind, as Parker comes to realise that he cannot outrun the horrors he has witnessed. The murder of his wife and daughter, Susan and Jennifer, has always been an integral part of the Parker psyche, but the tragedy plays a more powerful part in the backstory to The Lovers than usual, as Parker finds himself haunted by their shades. As rendered by Connolly, the characters are not ghosts, nor angels, nor undead, but creatures that seem to be entirely new in the realms of the supernatural. Without recourse to cliché or sentimentality, Connolly creates vivid characters in ‘Susan’ and ‘Jennifer’, in the process adding a layer of profundity to a page-turning thriller.
But then The Lovers, for all that it appears to be an unconventional but genre-friendly take on the classic private eye story, eventually reveals itself to be a rather complex novel, and one that is deliciously ambitious in its exploration of the meanings behind big small words such as love, family, duty and blood. As all the classic literary private eyes eventually come to do, Charlie Parker spends the bulk of the novel investigating himself, in dogged pursuit of his own identity, as he tries to untangle decades of lies, half-truths and the well-meant obfuscations of his father’s former partners and friends. Connolly has penned some very fine novels over the last decade or so, but this is arguably his finest to date.
Stuart Neville’s debut novel The Twelve also features supernatural elements. As it opens, we find ex-IRA killer Gerry Fegan plagued by the ghosts of those he murdered during ‘the Troubles’. The ghosts are demanding blood vengeance, but it’s not Fegan’s blood they want: it’s the blood of those who ordered the killings, those who used Fegan as a tool – albeit a willing tool – to achieve their sordid aims.
Last year, in The Truth Commissioner, David Park introduced a fictional ‘truth and reconciliation’ process to the landscape of Northern Ireland’s post-Troubles fiction. That novel, and The Twelve, are attempts to deal with the consequences of the Peace Process, and particularly those elements of the Peace Process that attempt to gloss over the ugly truth of three decades of cold-blooded, sectarian murder. Neville’s novel posits Gerry Fegan as judge, jury and executioner of the men who orchestrated killing campaigns for personal gain, and gives a fictional voice to something crucial that has been sadly lacking in reality – a heartfelt, profound apology from the killers for all the agony inflicted on ordinary people.
Gerry Fegan is an utterly compelling character, as chillingly ruthless as Richard Stark’s protagonist Parker, but driven by conscience and a desire to absolve himself of his sins by putting right his own small corner of the world, even if that means making the ultimate sacrifice. Stuart Neville’s novel deals in a very pragmatic way with contemporary issues, but he isn’t afraid to introduce some very old-fashioned concepts, not least of which are guilt, redemption and – potentially, at least – a spiritual salvation.
The ghosts that haunt Fegan are another old-fashioned touch, but, as with John Connolly, Neville has the talent to believably blend the tropes of the crime novel and those of a horror, in the process creating a page-turning thriller akin to a collaboration between John Connolly and Stephen King. For all that the shadows of Fegan’s world are populated by ghosts, however, Neville never explicitly states that the supernatural is a reality. Fegan is the only character to see the ghosts, and as the novel progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that the ‘ghosts’ are in fact manifestations of Fegan’s guilt, a consequence of his internalising his conflicts.
Whether or not Fegan and his ghosts come in time to be seen as a metaphor for Northern Ireland itself, as it internalises and represses its response to its sundering conflicts, remains to be seen. For now, The Twelve is a superb thriller, and one of the first great post-Troubles novels to emerge from Northern Ireland.
The dead also play their part in Declan Hughes’s latest novel, All the Dead Voices. The fourth outing for Hughes’s Dublin-based private investigator Ed Loy, the novel peels back the skin of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland to reveal the festering corpse beneath.
In terms of the great fictional private eyes, Ross Macdonald took up the baton from Raymond Chandler. Where Chandler deployed Philip Marlowe to investigate the culture and society of 1940’s California, Macdonald used Lew Archer as a means of investigating the family as the microcosmic society. Declan Hughes employs the Macdonald model to get at the truth of contemporary Ireland, as Ed Loy infiltrates families and uncovers their secrets, excavating skeletons and unravelling histories.
In All the Dead Voices, Hughes’s most ambitious novel to date, the personal becomes political. When a fifteen-year-old murder case is re-opened, Loy is employed by the victim’s daughter to investigate the former suspects for the killing, a list that includes an ex-paramilitary, a property developer, and a psychotic gangland kingpin.
There’s a wonderful immediacy to Hughes’s depiction of recession-hit Ireland, and not least because the novel feels at times as if it has been ripped from yesterday’s breathless newspaper headlines. Journalism, it is said, is the first draft of history, but the crime novel can often function as its second draft, given its obsession with diagnosing the world’s ills and exploring its taboos. Where Hughes excels, however, is his ability to position the reader at the nexus where crime meets civilised society.
While Hughes appreciates the private eye’s heritage, and acknowledges the romantic notion of the cynical PI as a tarnished knight, he is also aware that the intimacy of the Dublin setting is paramount. Thus, when Loy meets with a former paramilitary, or a gangland boss, the detective is not descending into some kind of Dantaesque inferno, or tentatively engaging with criminality for the sake of a greater good. Loy, if not already on first-name terms with the criminal fraternity, generally knows a man who is, the implication being that Irish society at large has a familiarity with crime that doesn’t always manifest itself as contempt. As with Gene Kerrigan’s recent Dark Times in the City, and Alan Glynn’s forthcoming Winterland, Hughes’s novel subtly explores the extent to which, in Ireland, the supposedly exclusive worlds of crime, business and politics can very often be fluid concepts capable of overlap and lucrative cross-pollination, a place where the fingers that once fumbled in greasy tills are now twitching on triggers.
Written in the laconic and staccato rhythms of the classic hard-boiled private eye novel, and featuring a cast of vividly drawn ne’er-do-wells and no little amount of pitch-black humour, All the Dead Voices is crucial reading for anyone who wishes to understand how modern Ireland works. – Declan Burke
This review first appeared in the Sunday Independent
“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. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “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. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.