‘Every Dead Thing’ – Charlie Parker #1 – by John Connolly

Well written but with a few flaws that gave me pause.

A good first impression

After having hung around outside, listening to other people having fun at the Charlie Parker party, I finally decided to head inside and see for myself what the appeal was Even though I’m two decades late, I started with the first Charlie Parker book, ‘Every Dead Thing’, published in 1999.

When I started the book, I thought – ‘So this is what the fuss was about.’ The writing was accomplished and vivid. The storytelling was skilfully non-linear, with past and present swirling together in Parker’s mind like water from different streams hitting a river. It was effortless, vivid, and compelling. It was also gruesome, violent, seedy and soaked in despair and ripe with regret.

On first meeting, Parker struck me as a strange narrator. He was a man whose history won him some sympathy but whose feelings, motivations and values are obscure. From the start, I saw everything through his eyes, either as it happened or as a memory. I saw it up close and in detail and with, apparently, very little being hidden, although some of it is artfully revealed. Yet, even when I knew his tragic backstory, I still had no feeling for who Charlie Parker was. He seemed to keep his emotions locked in a steel box somewhere at the back of his mind. Occasionally I thought I heard something rattling back there but I didn’t know if it was trying to get out or just settling in place.

A tasty meal of a story but with a taint that spoiled the after-taste.

By the time I finished ‘Every Dead Thing’, my opinion of the book had shifted. I felt as though I’d eaten something that I liked but which had had a background flavour that was a little off and which clung to the palette after I was done

There were some very good things here. Things good enough to make me want to read more of John Connolley’s books. 

I loved the quality of the writing. It’s measured and careful and changes in texture to match the content.

I remain impressed by how well and how effortlessly the beginning of the book braided the two threads of current action and Parker’s backstory, making both stronger.

The regular, bloody, fatal violence was vividly described and the action scenes were full of tension and suspense. 

Perhaps best of all was the sparkling depiction of Parker’s two ‘Associates’ Louie and Angel. The novel was worth reading just to meet these black gay men, one a master thief and one an assassin, who I think are one of the most believable and intriguing couples in crime fiction. The depiction of their relationship with each other felt authentic and intimate. Their relationship with Parker was unusual but plausible. Their dialogue was perfect.

So what’s not to like?

Although the book was full of action and had a twisting plot that kept hiding the bad guys, I felt that it meandered too much. We reached a false climax when the first killer is disposed of about half-way through the book. That felt like reaching what you thought would be the top of a hill only to find it was a ridge and there’s a bigger climb ahead.

Then we had so many gun battles. It felt like bullets had replaced interrogation as an investigative tool.

Then there is the way women were portrayed – as if they were a species Parker has admired from afar but never actually met. Yes, the main woman is bright and independent and even shoots someone but I didn’t believe in her as a person. She remained a plot device.

These are things that I could imagine John Connolley getting better at in later books.

The two things that left me with a sense of reading something tainted.

The first is the fascination with vivisection as art and the serial killer as an artist. It was probably a nineties thing – Val McDermid’s books did the same sort of thing – which is why I stopped reading them. I found this repulsive not because of the violence but because it seemed an invitation to voyeurism. I don’t want to watch this and I resent the sly admiration for the serial killer and torturer that comes from their transformation into an artist or wannabe artist.

The second thing is Parker. And this is why I can’t make my mind up. Is the fact that I dislike him so much a problem with the book or a tribute to John Connolley’s writing?

Parker is a drunk and a murderer. He’s a man who could only love his wife fully after she’d been killed. He pumps out testosterone, creating violence wherever he goes. He makes Reacher look like a diplomat. He’s dressed as a cultured man who loves poetry and cajun food and intelligent women. He has people who are loyal to him. And yet, his first solution to any problem is violence. We know he’s had suicidal thoughts and overcome them. I’m not sure that that was the right decision. 

So, what next?

People whose tastes I normally share have told me that they love the Charlie Parker series that I’m going to give the next book in the series a try and see if Parker becomes someone I’m more enamoured with.

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