John Connolly’s distinctive blend of human villainy and supernatural forces have won him a huge army of admirers since he first came on the scene with Every Dead Thing in 1999. He has attained that enviable status where each new book is a serious event on the crime fiction calendar and numerous authors cite him as an influence.
A Time of Torment begins with Maine PI Charlie Parker recovering from a near fatal encounter with violent men, which followers of Parker’s career will have read about in The Wolf in Winter. Nursing mental and physical wounds, he is gingerly picking up the pieces of his life. He is contacted by a newly released prisoner, Jerome Burnel, who was feted as a public hero when he shot dead two robbers, but went from hero to zero when police discovered child pornography on his home computer. Burnell received a long sentence.
Parker is moved by the man’s brutal jail-time story, and tries to reassure him that he can rebuild his life. Bernel disappears, however, and his conviction that his days are numbered becomes sadly prescient. Parker and his two New York associates, Louis and Angel, track down Burnel’s chief prison tormentor, Harpur Griffin, also now a free man. Griffin is found in a bar with two companions who register off the scale on Parker’s danger meter. When Griffin is found burned alive in his car shortly after the meeting, Parker, Louis and Angel realise that they are dealing with men who are fueled with something more potent than simple criminality.
If you’re new to the series you’ll be intrigued by Louis and Angel. Both are deadly in their different ways. While Angel is scruffy and the very picture of a bumbling petty crook, he is wise and ruthless beyond his years as a result of childhood abuse. Louis, by contrast, is a pardigm of elegant good taste in his manners and dress code; he always reminds me of Robert B Parker’s Hawk in his ability to exude menace with little more than a raised eyebrow.
Connolly reminds us that the white people who settled America came from European lands with a rich but sometimes malevolent folk history stretching back to pre-Christian times. Parker himself is haunted by the shades of his first wife and child, who were brutally murdered in front of him. He views his awareness of this parallel world as more of a curse than a blessing, particularly as he now knows that his daughter by his second wife has inherited his unwelcome gift.
It is worth pointing out that John Connolly is an Irish writer. Even so, one of the great strengths of this book is its sense of place, set in the Eastern US. There is a feeling of foreboding Connolly evokes when he describes the menace of these isolated American communities, whether they be in the lonely hills of West Virginia or hacked out of the forests of Maine, perpetually in the shadows of the tall trees, but darkened also by the metaphorical gloom of a sanguinary history.
Eventually, Parker narrows down his search for Burnel’s tormentors, and his investigations lead him to an isolated – and incestuous – community in Plassey County, West Virginia. The people and their village are known as the Cut, and they have lived in Amish-like seclusion for as long as anyone can recall. The comparison with the Amish begins and ends with reclusiveness, as the god of the Cut isn’t the one found in The Bible. Their god is called The Dead King.
Parker and the people of the Cut round each other relatively cautiously in the fashion of partners in a courtly dance, but when they do engage, the last 50 pages of the book are violent and remorseless. This is dry mouth time – superb entertainment, but very unsettling too.
You can take a crash course in the dark world of Charlie Parker by reading our Guide to John Connolly’s Charlie Parker.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 5 Stars