The Wolf in Winter by John Connolly

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The Wolf in Winter 200

The village of Prosperous, Maine, is aptly named. Everyone is comfortably well-off. Folk in Prosperous look after one another, but they are remarkably tolerant, too – not always a defining characteristic of isolated Maine settlements. Just outside the village is an ancient church, dedicated to Adam Before Eve and Eve Before Adam. The tiny building was reputedly shipped stone-by-stone from a remote village in northern England, whence came the first inhabitants of Prosperous.

In the state’s capital, Portland, a homeless man called Jude is missing. Despite a shattered family life, and a history of depression, Jude has always managed to maintain his dignity – and his dress sense – in spite of his homeless state. Jude had an estranged daughter and was trying to find her to bring about a reconciliation. He scrabbled together $100 or so to buy a couple of hours of Charlie Parker’s time. Parker is a former cop, turned PI, but has always helped Jude out whenever he’s been able.

When Jude is found hanged in the basement of a derelict house, the Maine State Police dismiss it as suicide. Parker is not so sure. He is, literally, a haunted man. Years earlier, his wife and young daughter were butchered while he was out drinking with his police buddies. Ever since, he has been tormented by guilt. Even a new relationship, which has produced another daughter, has not exorcised his ghosts.

Parker feels compelled to get to the truth of Jude’s death, and his investigation leads him to Prosperous. He visits the ancient church, where he is both fascinated and disturbed by the pagan stone carvings of The Green Man – a pre-Christian deity, a wood spirit, thought capable of ensnaring mortal men with its tendrils. As he closes in on those who may be responsible for the death of Jude and the disappearance of Jude’s daughter, the Selectmen of Prosperous face the fact that a centuries-old grip on their community is being threatened. Debts are called in, and ancient enemies are drawn into the conflict.

Some readers have strong views on writers who mix the paranormal with crime fiction. Crime crossovers are not for everyone, and those strongly against them will not be dissuaded by this, or any of Connolly’s other novels. However, that this a superb crime story in its own right. There are crooked cops, contract killers, and conspiratorial local officials – every one of them being as human as you and I. Parker does not solve his cases with visions and ghostly voices whispering in his head. He is, quite simply, a damned good investigator.

Charlie Parker fans will love the fact that in this, the 12th novel in the series, key characters including The Collector, Louis and Angel, and the shadowy Backers, all report for duty. However, if you are new to the world of Charlie Parker and decide to read The Wolf in Winter, then I have one suggestion: when you go to bed tonight, put a chair under the door handle, and keep the lights on.

Reviewing books is, by and large, a rewarding occupation. Yes, there are occasionally books that rather than being released seem to simply escape. Thankfully, most books that arrive at Crime Fiction Lover have varying degrees of merit, from the workmanlike to the excellent with many gradations in between. Just once in a while, however, comes a book which is simply stunning. The phone goes unanswered. Meals are missed. The clock hands whizz by like a cheap special effect in a movie. The Wolf in Winter is one such book.

I read its 422 pages in one spellbound sitting. I wouldn’t want to burden the author with the dubious accolade literary fiction, but it is writing of the highest quality. It is terrifying, heartbreaking, and nerve-shredding. Even if you don’t believe in things that go bump in the night, you won’t be as keen as usual about walking the dog past the churchyard tonight. A final word. If you have any breath left to hold – keep holding it, and hope for the best, for the book ends on the mother of all cliff-hangers.

Read our guide to the entire Charlie Parker series here.

Hodder & Stoughton

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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