Where gumshoe meets Gothic

The Great North Woods straddle four northeastern states of the US, including the state of Maine. It is from such verdure that evil rises up miasma-like in John Connolly’s The Wrath of Angels, his 11th book featuring Charlie Parker, ex-NY cop, part-time barman, and Connolly’s hardboiled anti-hero. 

Like many things sinister, here too the beginnings are innocuous enough. It is the hunting season and two old men enter the woods on a regular outing. Soon one thing leads to another and deep in the forest, they stumble upon the wreckage of a plane.

 There are no survivors and no bodies. But there is more cash than the old friends have ever seen. The friends keep their adventure a secret until many years after the incident one of them reveals it in his dying hours. 

What follows is a dark narrative connecting insidiously the past with the present. Along the way, Parker, whose heart beats but a-rhythmically with a sense of the good, renews his acquaintance with enemies from earlier books. Often we are led away from the plot’s main street into winding byways of black souls and unspeakable deeds, the relevance of which to the main story we instinctively doubt, but persist in the hope that all will be revealed in due course. 

Just as we begin to co-habit this world, deem an alternative to our own, Connolly brings home the contemporaneity of the novel’s setting by throwing in a thing or two about events nearer home like the financial crisis with its attendant hardships. 

On the topic of souls, it is as though Connolly craves our indulgence by asking that we suspend disbelief and allow for his ingenious introduction, into an otherwise conventional thriller, of trans-human forces of perennial evil whose wretched minds find a mirror in the hideous deformities on their persons. So we have “…a bloated imp of a man, his neck swollen by a filthy goitre, an outward manifestation of his spiritual pollution”. 

At such times, when even the most patient among us may be tempted to say enough, Connolly’s almost-lyrical prose keeps us on board until the end, if there is ever one. The writing is at its best when its object is the natural world — “Fall was gone, vanished in wisps of white cloud that fled across clear blue skies like pale silk scarves snatched by the breeze”. 

In more ways than one, Parker is not alone in his quest. He has his lackeys Angel and Louis, with their sense of boilerplate hoodlum humour. That is the fun part. The not so fun part, at least for the victims, is supplied in ample measure by characters like the Collector, who were birthed in earlier books in the series. Vengeance, the Collector’s vocation, is visited upon his fallen victims to the accompaniment of bon mots like, “Sometimes, I find that God’s attention wanders”. 

Every Dead Thing (1999), the first Charlie Parker book, won for his creator an award for Best First Private Eye Novel. Speaking of good language as a possible intrusion into a good crime story, Connolly remarked in an interview: “All you have is language. Why write beneath yourself? It’s an act of respect for the reader as much as yourself.” We cannot but agree. 

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