I did a month of Going Home posts — looking at the contemporary fiction that had steered me onto the more classic detection path now walk — last May, and rather enjoyed revisiting some influential (for me) books and happy memories.
Rather than commit a month to it every time, I think I might just drop them in occasionally when the spirit moves me to investigate my origins, and of late I’ve been thinking a lot about
Dark Hollow (2000) by John Connolly
How I encountered this book
As I started to gain an increased appreciation of contemporary crime writing, I became a little fixated on discovering the Next Big Thing in crime writers. Sure, discovering the extant work of Dennis Lehane or Robert Crais was lovely, but I wanted to be among the first to appreciate someone new for, y’know, bragging rights among all the, er, people I knew who, uh, read that sort of stuff. Yeah, even now I’m not entirely sure what I was doing…
As a result, I would haunt my local Ottakar’s bookshop (I’ve said it before, but damn do I ever miss Ottakar’s) and pounce on any promising-sounding debuts that appeared there. I bought first edition hardbacks by people who have probably forgotten they ever wrote books — Flint (2000) by Paul Eddy, Winter’s End (2001) by John Rickards, Sasso (2001) by James Sturz — as well as by authors whose careers have gone on to big things like Sleepyhead (2001) by Mark Billingham, China Lake (2002) by Meg Gardiner, and The Business of Dying (2002) by Simon Kernick. Essentially, if you published a debut crime-detective novel in 2000, 2001, or 2002, I probably bought it in hardback, full of eventually-squandered hope.
The irony of this is that the one debut I didn’t buy was Every Dead Thing (1999) by John Connolly. In my memory I picked it up, thought it sounded interesting and considered buying it at some point, and then it immediately vanished from Ottakar’s and I could not remember the author’s name nor any other telling detail except the fact that the cover was orange. When it appeared in paperback, I snatched it up in a pique of delight, loved it to bits, and then bought the sequel Dark Hollow (2000) the second it appeared in hardback. Wasn’t risking the chance of that also vanishing from my life!
What’s it about?
Ex-NYPD detective Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker has moved to his grandfather’s cabin in Maine following the events of Every Dead Thing, wherein he tracked and killed The Travelling Man, the serial killer responsible for the murder of his wife and young daughter. Working now as a private investigator, he does a favour for a young woman, Rita Ferris, in visiting her deadbeat husband Billy Purdue to collect the alimony he owes…and when Rita and her son are violently murdered and Billy disappears, Bird is dragged into the search for the killer.
Little does he know that four murdered Cambodians, three million dollars in cash, and the suicide of an old woman in the north of the state will all combine to draw others into the hunt for Billy Purdue — the Boston gangster ‘Clean’ Tony Celli, killers-for-hire Abel and Stritch, and another, unseen presence who might just be the most dangerous of them all…
Any seeds of detection?
This is very much in the tradition of what I tend to think of as the American Private Eye Novel: you see a guy who tells you and thing that sets you off finding someone else who also tells you a thing and sends you somewhere else where you learn another thing…and eventually all these pieces of information draw together to give meaning to a larger picture. Such a structure is perhaps unsurprising, given that Connolly is from Dublin and has set his ostensibly private eye novel in the US. Clearly he wanted to write a book in this grand heritage, and he stuck to it fairly faithfully for this opening brace of more traditional novels (the supernatural becomes an increasing factor in Connolly’s books, which we’ll get to).
He plays perhaps one game of obscured identity, but so briefly that it’s over as soon as you realise it’s beginning, and there’s not really anything in the classic form of an early clue that comes back to bite you later on (there’s arguably one instance, but it’s too vague to really be too hyped up as such). So from this perspective there was very little here to fuel the GAD ember glowing to life inside of me. There is, however — and I feel this was something I saw a lot of in the early 2000s — a strong strain of HIBK running throughout, with plenty of “I assumed X, and that would turn out to be a terrible mistake”, and Connolly’s not without insight where logical fallacy is involved: one particular moment of intelligent dismissal where Bird might have heard what he wanted to hear, and then reasoning out how and why someone might say something that way without it necessarily being as relevant as it originally seems. Given the tendency of a lot of authors (regardless of genre) to leap two-footed into “He wouldn’t say that if he didn’t know this!” to paper over their plot cracks, a bit of restraint goes a long way.
Additionally, Parker follows a fairly rigorous investigation through what is essentially a maze of loose remembrances and hearsay, and acknowledges the need for the threads to be chased down to their ultimate conclusion:
[W]hen they lead nowhere, or proved simply to be false assumptions, I would shrug and return to the core to follow another thread. I was prepared to make mistakes in the hope that I would eventually find something that was not an error.
Two decades after reading this, I’m a card-carrying Freeman Will Crofts fanatic — coincidence??
Can you go home?
It’s important to understand just how much of a John Connolly fan I was in the early 2000s. I loved Every Dead Thing, it was unlike anything I’d read to that point (and, in fairness, largely since). I was so caught up in it that, purely because his protagonist was named after a jazz saxophonist (and Connolly had gone on record to say he just liked the nickname ‘Bird’, and associated no link between his book and Parker’s music), I went out and bought some Charlie Parker CDs having previously had no interest at all in jazz. Connolly’s book tour for his fourth novel The White Road (2002) was the first author signing I ever attended, and he was gracious and charming and gave the distinct impression of being if anything more delighted to meet me that I was to meet him. Additionally, because he was only dropping into the two bookshops in the city to sign stock, the staff at the first bookshop suggested that I walk him across the city centre to the second bookshop so he didn’t get lost and he signed my book “For Jim — Tonto to my Lone Ranger” and I’m still excited about that nearly 20 years later.
For a while, John Connolly and Robert Crais were the only two authors who mattered — everything else was just marking time to a greater or lesser extent — and as I’d been reading Connolly since his very first publication I felt like I watched him establish himself, and felt very proud of and connected to (though, let’s be clear, in no way responsible for) his success. When he was on tour in the US with his fifth novel Bad Men (2003), a friend of mine went to a signing and told him about how she and I were fans, on the back of which he sent me a promotional Bad Men t-shirt which, I presume, had been produced for the US tour since such things were not in evidence when I’d seen him on the UK tour a few months earlier. He always remembered me, and always appeared pleased to see me, and that was sort of revelatory for me as a young man who wasn’t really used fandom.
I also attribute my John Connolly fandom with teaching me some important lessons about reading about books before reading the books themselves: Connolly was so excited by one element of the research for his sixth novel The Black Angel (2005) that he wrote about it at great length on his website…forgetting that it was supposed to be a surprise revelation of sorts in the narrative, and so spoiling the eventual direction that book ended up taking. I mean, sure, to this day I’ll still read reviews of books I’ve not read, but I know now to avoid anything about something I already know I want to read…and every time I don’t click on a review for this reason, I’m reminded of that experience with The Black Angel. So revisiting Connolly — the last book of his I read was The Lovers (2009), the eighth entry in a series now 15 books deep and growing — is a deep dive back into a whole lotta stuff that is very tightly bound to my growing awareness, enthusiasm, experience, and autonomy (working out what I liked, not being afraid to dislike something I’d been told was good) as a reader.
And, honestly, I loved rereading Dark Hollow.
It’s by no means something that will appeal to the classical detection fan, even if little throwaway moments are enriched on account of my GAD reading — I understand a reference to someone living in the Beacon Hill district of Boston thanks to Roger Scarlett, say — but it’s an example of the sort of tightly-constructed, literary, intelligently-written thriller that it seems there is little call for these days amidst all the amnesiacs with possibly-criminous spouses. The plot is at times alarmingly difficult to really pin down, deprived as it is of a simple focus like “Find out who murdered this old dude”, but every action contributes to a growing mass of momentum and a forbidding sense of urgency and inevitability. And, even after only one previous novel, Connolly has a lyrical way with settings and mood that still hits pretty hard:
So far, [Billy] hadn’t killed anybody and nobody had managed to kill him. The longer a situation like that goes on, the more the odds are stacked in favour of a bad end, and Billy Purdue was a bad beginning looking for a worse end. I’d heard people describe him as an accident waiting to happen, but he was more than that. He was a constantly evolving disaster, like the long, slow death of a star. His was an ongoing descent into the maelstrom.
These moments of reflection, when placed in context with the steady, inescapable sense of history that Connolly builds inexorably as things progress, sit in deliberate and stark contrast with the violence his characters are capable of deploying. My daily dose of violence is restricted to the billingsgate-free, trenchant observations directed at the cad in a 1930s detective novel, and I haven’t read anything possessed of quite this level of savagery for a while, but Connolly’s violence is neither pornographic nor cathartic. Bird is uneasy about the brutality he resorted to in revenging the murders of his wife and child, and acknowledges that his capability for violence is not the same as a need for it. Sure, he has the early-2000s staple of a violent friend who does the really dirty work for him — take a bow, hitman Louis and his lover Angel, making NBD of LGBTQ+ representation since 1999 — but there’s a deeper sense of how the violence might change Parker and how that’s something he wants to combat.
In fairness, too, Connolly was excellent at dreaming up very bad bad guys, and you want to believe your heroes are capable of dealing with such threats. Stritch, in particular, is threatening in a way that most antagonists in (my limited reading of) modern thrillers simply do not seem to manage — even to the extent that, for all their capability, you do wonder how and if Parker and company will cope with him when the time comes (and, indeed the way that’s used here is particularly brilliant). A few extended suspense sequences, particularly the one in set in an abandoned and decaying factory, balance all these elements perfectly, with our protagonists reliably human in their frailties even as their capacity for violence is unleashed.
Man, I could write another 5,000 words about this — about the lovely turns of phrase and perfect character descriptions, such as wisps of hair peering out from beneath a man’s wig “like mad relatives consigned to the attic” or the good-natured ribbing of Louis telling problem-vortex Parker “You could fall over and make hitting the ground look complicated”, or the aching loss and hope evinced at Parker’s dealing with his estranged partner Walter Cole and ex-lover Rachel Wolfe, or the way relationships from the past bleed through into the present so convincingly — but I’m aware I’m going on, and I want to address the elephant in the room. Namely: if I enjoyed Connolly’s books so much, why haven’t I read him in over a decade?
I suppose the answer to that can be found over these first four books. Every Dead Thing is about vengeance for Parker’s wife and daughter, and that’s dealt with in that book rather than drawn out over eight novels (or six season of a TV show) as would be done these days. Equally, the threat in Dark Hollow is established and dealt with in one book. Some villains and themes in The Killing Kind (2003) are carried over into The White Road (2004), which which comes a more explicit notion of the next world keen to avenge itself on this one, and as these books progress a sense of some larger supernatural agency also begins to make itself felt. In this book, Parker sees things which might be the spirits of the dead, or might simply be his own grief-stricken, raving imagination trying to justify the lengths to which he is going. By the time we got to The Unquiet (2007) — the prologue of which, with Dave ‘The Guesser’ Glovsky, shows that Connolly really can do straight clue-based deduction if he wants to — The Reapers (2008), and certainly The Lovers (2009), it started to feel as if each book was simply a step in some overreaching supernatural scheme which required you to recall things from four or five books ago — indeed, in reading this I realised that The Lovers resolves something planted in Dark Hollow — rather than novels in their own right. And they stopped being…fun.
The depth of detail in Connolly’s milieu was always impressive — see the explanation of Tony Celli’s actions in this one, which is ingeniously worked in — but, particularly with The Reapers (which should have been much more fun than it was, given that it put Angel and Louis front and centre) and The Lovers, I began to feel that each book had become a question of ticking a box, of introducing a character now who actually is something in three books from now. I forgot some of what The Collector, a character introduced in a novella included in Nocturnes (2006), a short story collection published after The Black Angel, did to vex Parker so much, and when he became relevant in The Unquiet (I think) in it was all sort of lost on me. Suddenly I was having to keep up with a soap opera, not just read a series of superbly-wrangled books.
It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that this feeling of disaffection started to creep in after my love of the standalone detection plots of the Golden Age had bloomed. I didn’t want to be surprised three books from now, I wanted to be shown something on page 30 that blows the whole thing wide open on page 230 and doesn’t get referred to by the author or detective ever again because it was just an awesome clue for that particular plot. People grow, tastes change, no-one was at fault for this, I’d just read Jim Thompson and Dashiell Hammett and others, and was starting to get the grips with Edmund Crispin and his peers, and that was something new to get excited about (my Connolly fandom transferred to GAD fandom and resulted in this blog — you, dear reader, can decide whether that was a good thing or not…). So I moved on.
But. Man, this has been a blast. Reliving the joy of these early days has stirred all sorts of things to the surface, and I’m definitely diving back into Connolly again this year. And thankfully there’s plenty to keep me busy — The Whisperers (2010), The Burning Soul (2011), The Wrath of the Angels (2012), The Wolf in Winter (2014), A Song of Shadows (2015), The Time of Torment (2016), A Game of Ghosts (2017), The Woman in the Woods (2018), and the 700-page A Book of Bones (2019)…holy shit, does this guy ever take a day off?! Ah, well. Heaven alone knows how I’ll cope remembering who’s who after a ten year hiatus — something from the end of The Lovers is relevant, I remember, though I can’t remember what it is — but it’s wonderful to have a sort of John Connolly Fandom Redux feeling and to be enthused about his work once more. I guess part of going home is acknowledging the reasons you liked living there in the first place, after all…
Going Home on The Invisible Event:
Fade Away (1996) by Harlan Coben
Blood Work (1998) by Michael Connelly
Angels Flight (1999) by Michael Connelly
Dark Hollow (2000) by John Connolly
The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987) by Robert Crais
Airframe (1996) by Michael Crichton
Dead Meat (1993) by Philip Kerr
A Drink Before the War (1994) by Dennis Lehane
Black and Blue (1997) by Ian Rankin