In a recent Arts Lives documentary on RTE, John Connolly suggested that evil is the absence of empathy. That’s an interesting notion in itself, but even moreso in the context of his own work, which features private detective Charlie Parker in an ongoing series, of which THE WHISPERERS is the ninth offering.
Parker’s conscience is even more tortured than is the norm for literary private eyes, a consequence of the guilt he experiences over the murder of his wife and child in Connolly’s debut, EVERY DEAD THING (1999). That gruesome double murder also means Parker has an empathy for murder victims that is unusually fine-tuned. But Parker is haunted by more than his own failure to protect his wife and child: the backdrop to Connolly’s novels teem with ghosts, spectres and demons.
Until recently it was left to the reader to decide whether Parker’s otherworldly experiences were manifestations of his guilt or glimpses of something more sinister. However, his previous offering, The Lovers (2009), was unambiguous in revealing that Parker is bedevilled by entities bent on doing evil. That theme is further explored in THE WHISPERERS.
Commissioned by a mourning father to investigate the circumstances of his son’s suicide, Parker finds himself uncovering a smuggling operation run by ex-soldiers who served in the Iraq war. Exactly what they’re smuggling across the Canadian border into Maine is difficult to ascertain, but the contraband has attracted the attention of a number of concerned parties. These include a Mexican drug lord and the smuggling kingpin who unofficially regulates the illegal trafficking that crosses the north-eastern border. But even more sinister elements are gathering in the shadows: Herod, the Captain, and the Collector …
The appeal of Connolly’s novels lies in his ability to successfully integrate two storytelling traditions. The first is a relatively recent one, that of the tarnished white knight of private eye lore, where a detective investigates a particular case in order to shed light on the society in which the character finds him or herself operating. This requires a clear-eyed assessment of contemporary mores and grittily realistic representation of the modern world. Connolly, in examining the consequences of war on individuals, and in particular the increasing numbers of ex-military men who are taking their own lives (and on occasion the lives of others), here explores a phenomenon that has become a silent epidemic in the US.
The second tradition he employs is that of gothic horror, a style popularised by Edgar Allan Poe, who is also credited with penning the first detective story in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841). Connolly’s supernatural creations, however, predate literary tradition. The various spectres and dark manifestations that populate his novels have their roots in prehistory, and they - or what they represent - appear in the earliest cultural tracts. Here Connolly taps into that timeless appeal by invoking demons who first made their appearance during the Sumerian civilisation, one of the earliest of the ancient civilisations of the Middle East, on which the modern political entity of Iraq is built.
It would be reductive to suggest that THE WHISPERERS is a thrilling page-turner simply because Connolly blends the crime and horror genres. He does so, of course, and in this case the join is seamless, not least because his deftly detailed prose and meticulous research creates a voice of compelling authority. With the Charlie Parker series, however, Connolly has tapped into something larger than commercially successful genre-bending. He understands that all literary investigation is an attempt to come to terms with the abiding presence of evil, its source and its consequences; moreover, he understands that mankind’s time-honoured fascination with evil is itself the ultimate investigation.
Crucially, Connolly understands that the horror Kurtz finally reveals to Marlow, for example, is a McGuffin; what matters is Marlow’s pursuit of the truth and the parallel, perverse journey made by Kurtz. But then, all great novels are more concerned with journey than destination. THE WHISPERERS is Connolly’s most ambitious novel yet in that it makes explicit the notion that, for Charlie Parker at least, horror is but a lurid companion on his journey towards the ineffable quality that nests in the heart of darkness. - Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Sunday Business Post
Praise for Declan Burke: “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – The Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “A hardboiled delight.” – The Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred review). “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre, was ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL.” – Sunday Times. “The writing is a joy.” – Ken Bruen. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.