Among my most prized possessions on the hardback crime shelf is a 1999 signed first edition of John Connolly's first Charlie Parker novel, Every Dead Thing. Originally, I was attracted to the book by its vivid, anatomical cover design which I spotted in the late, lamented Murder One bookshop on London's Charing Cross Road.
I was stunned to see the 1999 publication date when I opened that book earlier this week, because I somehow still think of Connolly as a "new" writer, which is clearly absurd given I've now read all 12 Parker novels as well as other works. After a lot of thought I've come to the conclusion that the reason for this trick of the mind is that even after a dozen outings, the Parker series feels incredibly fresh, with each new book taking an unexpected and thrilling turn.
The reason for this Connolly retrospective is that the twelfth novel, The Wolf in Winter is the best in the series so far - a huge achievement given how much great work has gone before, and how much of Parker's story has already been told.
The perfect Parker novel, and perhaps this is it, combines a number of essential ingredients: a personal cause for the Maine-based detective; a supernatural plot that feels close enough to normality to keep you from wanting to turn out the lights; a cast of macabre and ruthless characters - including the good guys; and a narrative bursting with tension and emotion. The best Connolly tales open themselves up like an unwelcome noise downstairs in the dead of night: you know there's nothing down there, but you're scared of it all the same. You don't want to check it out, but you know you have no choice.
The Wolf in Winter has it all in spades. Parker's investigation into the suspicious death of a former source, a homeless man, leads him to the strange, strange Maine town of Prosperous, a city seemingly as lucky as its name, untouched by economic or human trauma at a time when both are in abundance.
At the rotten, corrupt heart of Prospersous is the church of a long lost sect that was transported brick-by-brick from northern England and rebuilt in Maine and a secret the inhabitants of the town, and in particular its elected elders, will stop at nothing to protect.
But stop at nothing is Parker's stock in trade and he arrives in Prosperous intent on discovering the truth behind his source's apparent suicide. Naturally when obstacles are placed in his way, Parker prepares to unleash his own particular version of hell on people who already have more than a passing acquaintance with the concept.
This is, put simply, a brilliant and sophisticated thriller written by one of the undisputed masters of the genre operating at the top of his considerable game. Five stars and then some.
Reviews of previous Charlie Parker novels:
The Whisperers 2010
The Lovers 2009
The Reapers 2008