I had my doubts about whether the Charlie Parker series was for me when I read the first book, ‘Every Dead Thing’. I was told that the series got much better and I can see that it’s kept a loyal readership for twenty years so I gave ‘Dark Hollow’, the second book, a try.
It was indeed much better. There are still things that don’t work well for me but the good parts are very good and there are a few signposts in this novel to things that could make the series a favourite, so I’ll be reading the third book and then making my mind up about the rest.
I’ve split my review of this twenty-year-old book into three: The Good – the things that would keep me reading John Connolly; The Bad – the things that irritate or distract me that would make me set the series aside if they persist; and The Could Turn Into Something Great – the things that might set this series apart as they’re developed.
Jon Connolly’s writing is rich and textured. He brings places alive, describing not just their physical experience but the shadows and scars left by their history until the places become characters in their own right.
He has a talent for drawing men well and for crafting dialogue that gives each of them a unique voice and etches their character more deeply. I particularly like the scenes between Parker, Angel and Louis. They seem real and grounded, despite the exotic trio that they make.
John Connolly can write scenes that are hard to forget. To me, this means he needs to be careful what he writes. Using a talent like that to turn a serial killer’s brutality into performance art, as he did in the first book, feels like a corruption of his gift and pollutes my memory. In ‘Dark Hollow’, the scene that sticks with me most is Louis telling a tale from his childhood, when a young black man is lynched and burned to death by a white mob that consists of most of the small town he lives in and where the event is treated like a picnic with live entertainment. This was chilling. Yes, there was violence, terrible violence, but mostly there was a deep understanding of the hatred and fear that fuelled the violence. It made Louis an easier character to understand and it was a reminded of how fresh in the memory State-endorsed, murderous white supremacy is.
The storytelling in ‘Dark Hollow’ is much more accomplished than in ‘Every Dead Thing’. John Connolly skillfully intertwines three storylines about violent people threatening Parker, keeping the tension high and producing a big finale, unlike the first book, which peaked part way through and then seemed to restart.
Part of what lubricates the novel is the self-deprecating way that Parker thinks. It’s sort of like Philip Marlowe with a stronger sense of the absurd. Here’s an example of Parker’s thoughts at the end of a violent encounter where a thug cut his cheek and nearly choked him to death.
‘ I struggled to my feet and wiped some of the blood from my cheek. The sleeve of my jacket came back damp and stained. It was lucky my jacket was black. Although the fact that I considered that lucky said a lot about the kind of day I was having.’
One of the things I struggled with in the first book was that Parker seemed to me to be almost as monstrous as the serial killer he was hunting. He had turned himself into a remorseless killer with no thought beyond violent revenge. Parker is a drunk and it seemed to me that hunting and killing had become his sublimation of the urge to drink – another way of running away from his own guilt and shame and grief. That’s not a man I’d want to be spending a lot of time with.
In ‘Dark Hollow’ we see Parker starting to become more self-aware, reflecting on his own darkness and trying drag himself out of its shadow. He still kills, but it’s no longer his first instinct. He still hunts but not for himself anymore. He’s a man who has recognised how monstrous he has become and is trying to find his way back through a form a violent atonement in the service of the weak and the wronged. To me, that still seems like a self-serving romanticism but at least it’s a start and it’s something I find credible from an ex-drunk, ex-murderer, ex-cop.
What is this obsession with the mafia and such an old-fashioned clichéd mafia? Ok, Parker comments that times have changed since the kind of Dom that shows up in ‘The Godfather’ but they still seem to be alive and well and talking to Parker. The scenes weren’t badly written but I hope we won’t do this mafia dance time after time.
Why does Parker always have to play alpha male, even when he’s relatively powerless? It seems to be a ritualised testosterone fest, designed to show how hard Parker is, to big-up the bad guys and to promise grudge-led bloodshed later. It doesn’t do anything for me.
Parker and women. I didn’t believe in any of the women in ‘Every Dead Thing’. They where shallow plot devices that Parker didn’t seem able to relate to and John Connolly didn’t seem able to bring to life. Things are a little better in ‘Dark Hollow’ but the women still mainly function as medieval Ladies handing out tokens for jousting knights to wear. They don’t seem real and I’m unconvinced in Parker’s interest in them. Parker gets on much better with Angel and Louis than with any of the women. I hope Parker eventually encounters women who are central to the plot because of who they are, what they want or what they’re willing to do rather than being there to be rescued, avenged, mourned, or protected.
That was it? Talk about an anticlimax. We had three Big Bads in this story: the rogue mafia guys, the vicious assassin torturer duo and the semi-mythical Caleb Kane. We spent a lot of the book hearing about the things they’d done that made them people to be feared and hated, people who even Parker should lose sleep over. Then, each of them disappeared in a puff of anti-climatic violence that barely left Parker with a scratch. Kinda like crime versions of the Bond villains. I hope this gets better.
The could turn into something great.
Parker’s ability to see the dead and their ability to find him. This is very well done. It’s not a saccharine ‘Ghost Whisperer’ kind of thing, nor is it typical of the Urban Fantasy treatment of speaking to the dead. It’s presented not as a power that Parker has but as an extension of his journey into grief and killing. His experiences have done something to his mind that enables him to see and apparently be seen by the dead. I like that this so far has not been explained or even verified. It could just be in Parker’s head but it probably isn’t and even if it is, it affects what he does. This could be a great way of distinguishing this series.
Parker’s growing sense of self-awareness and his need for some kind of mission other than revenge. Linked to the I-see-dead-people thing is Parker’s search for a reason to be the kind of man that he is. He’s already obtained a PI license but I don’t see him doing divorce work. It’s his route to being a white knight. I think that opens a lot of possibilities and makes Parker easier to live with.
Parker living in Maine. Parker seems much more at home in Maine than he was in New Orleans, although it could be that I know Maine a little and New Orleans not at all, but Maine as a setting seemed less like a stage set and more like a context for the action than New Orleans did. New Orleans seemed like a backdrop that John Connolly wasn’t entirely comfortable in. Maine feels like home.