John Connolly lives just below James Lee Burke on my bookshelves. Without Burke there would be no Connolly on those shelves as it was the chance purchase of the American writer’s novel Dixie City Jam that ignited my passion for crime fiction. I found Connolly a couple of years later on the publication of his first novel Every Dead Thing, which introduced the world to Maine-based detective Charlie Parker.
Eleven Parker novels later – Connolly is currently touring the British Isles promoting the PI’s twelfth outing, the outstanding The Wolf in Winter – and I learn that without Burke (and Ross Macdonald) there really would be no Connolly.
“I wouldn’t be writing without Ross Macdonald or James Lee Burke,” he tells me as he discusses the influences on his early career. “Individuals in search of redemption are what I like so Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer and Burke’s Dave Robicheaux these are characters in search of redemption.”
Connolly says he first read Macdonald in 1991 when, “I had no conception of being a writer”, but the seed was sewn then and the themes still clearly resonate in his books. On the UK cover of The Wolf in Winter, Parker is described as, “Scourge of Evil. Last hope of the lost.”
“For Macdonald there is the huge notion of compassion and empathy,” he says. “By the end, Lew Archer is almost a Christ figure, taking on board the suffering of the world .That was important. What did he say? ‘I hear voices crying in the night and I go see what’s the matter.’ He has a compulsion to intervene for the weak.
“I go back to that quote from the Irish writer Edmund Burke, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’. I saw that running through Macdonald and it made concrete a lot of things that were nebulous in my own conception.”
Connolly attributes his inclination towards the redemption stories to his Catholic roots .
“As a Catholic the word redemption comes with a certain spiritual and supernatural baggage has resonance,” he says. “It seemed appropriate I could explore the implications of redemption through novels and that’s why the supernatural elements become more pronounced. It’s about the possibility and the cost of redemption as redemption costs sacrifice and sacrifice is painful.”
James Lee Burke’s Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux is cut from the same cloth and familiar with the concepts of sacrifice and pain. Many a Burke novel has Robicheaux pursuing justice for the lost and dispossessed, often at great personal expense.
Besides the redemption theme, Connolly was also influenced by Burke’s use of language.
“Burke’s a poet of landscape. And he made me aware of place and accepting rhythms and cycles in them. There is sheer beauty in his prose,” he says. “There was once an impression that mystery fiction could be functional and that the prose didn’t matter but Burke used poetic language. He’s more from the southern gothic tradition, a product of that, he’s read little of it (crime fiction) and his antecedents are southern literary writers.“
The question of literary parentage is a fascinating one with Connolly, who chose Maine – a state he had worked in – as the setting for his books as part of a conscious and deliberate move away from his native Ireland.
“It was a way of escaping the expectations that come with being a n Irish writer. In the Penguin Anthology of Irish fiction, edited by Colm Toibin, there’s a quote approvingly used that says ‘to be an Irish writer is to be engaged with the nature of Irishness’. I can think of nothing I wanted less.”
Instead he says he regarded the US landscape and its literature as, “a means of escaping a very parochial literary viewpoint”. Crime fiction also was a departure from the Irish tradition.
“Mystery fiction has not been part of our genre make up,” he says. ”Irish writers have dabbled in it but have never really got a hold. The Irish tradition is of gothic and supernatural fiction and there’s a lot of that; crime fiction is a product of rationalism and the Irish are uncomfortable with that view of world. It’s difficult to be rationalist and a catholic.”
Difficult, but clearly not impossible as Connolly has proven, elevating Charlie Parker into the pantheon of great fictional detectives, but one for whom the “bad” guys are rather darker than the average murderer or burglar.
The supernatural was initially a slow burn element to the stories, one that many readers, myself included, were genuinely intrigued by, but also often unsure of as the early books only hinted at darker forces at work. There was no question that Parker, coming to terms with the violent death of his wife and child, was a haunted man. The question, however, was what he was haunted by?
“I was happy to leave it ambiguous at the beginning and liked the reader being wrong-footed not knowing if he (Parker) is really seeing these things or if he’s having a breakdown,” he says. “But once you get to The Killing Kind and The White Road it becomes the case that you can see something else is happening. You can only play the game of ambiguity so long, otherwise you risk annoying the reader and undermining the story.”
For many of Connolly’s devotees – and he has an enthusiastic hard core following as a visit to his Facebook page shows – it was at this point that the series really took off. Connolly attributes this, at least in part, to his growing confidence and security as a writer. After describing his dissatisfaction with his first manuscript, even as it was accepted for publication – “When it was accepted I was in shock. My first response was ‘can you give it back to me and I’ll do it properly’” – he says it was only later he began to become more comfortable with his writing and his career.
“You learn to live with the first book,” he says, “and it was only with 5th or 6th I realised I could do it over a long period of time, and then the books get more ambitious.”
Book six was The Black Angel, a favourite for many Connolly fans (and the first of his books I wrote about on this blog: Dark Angel - http://materialwitness.typepad.com/material_witness/2006/05/dark_angel.html).
It was also Connolly’s most successfully book commercially, taking him onto the US paperback top 10 bestseller list for the first time. Despite all his commercial and critical success – extended into the Yound Adult genre with XXX – Connolly has never lost the writer’s doubt that he first experienced as a debut novelist struggling to find a publisher.
“Every book I’ve written I’ve wanted to throw away after 20K words, thinking ‘this is the one I get found out, ’” he says. “Each book is no different and you think maybe this one is true. You feel you will reach the limit of the craft or your ability to bring new ideas and characters. That fear never goes away it’s very odd. You’d think you would embrace it but it’s always fresh and it’s a thorn in the side.”
When we spoke – just before Easter – Connolly was in the middle of what appeared a grueling book tour promoting The Wolf in Winter, although he denied it was a chore: “It’s better than a real job and it’s nice to talk to book sellers and readers, people who love books. Those are not difficult conversation. “
`What his loyal readers do not see when they queue up to meet him – and Connolly does have a large and loyal following as his Facebook page illustrates – is the pain of the process.
“When readers see a book they get the sight of a swan gliding along, underneath it’s legs kicking frantically, I think there’s no real conception of the panic, the worry and doubt about the next one. When I talk to people about writing I try to explain to people about doubt and that it’s part of the process. People out there trying to write books don’t quite understand. They doubt the quality of their work and their ability to finish and conclude that they are not quite cut out for it.”
Connolly is clearly cut out for it. His body of work now extends to successful YA novels while the Parker series continues to enthrall readers. And so while Connolly worries about his next draft, his readers worry about Charlie Parker, a man who has suffered more than his fair share at the hands of a cruel writer?
“I am not a sadist,” Connolly says. “It may seem I am but I am not. People often describe the novels as dark or bleak, but I think they are hopeful. This is a journey out of grief and out of hopelessness. In the first book he’s a figure of rage and hurt and over 12 novels he is transformed into something else. For The Wolf In Winter, I picked the last quote very carefully – the new divine wolf* – that is what is happening, this is a moment if transformation. We are forged in fire and that’s what’s happened and what comes out will be very different. The next book is a slightly holding pattern book. Parker’s been intensely damaged but is entering a new phase.”
For many, myself included, it’s a relief that there will be a next Parker book – holding pattern or not. And long may the struggle continue, for both Connolly and Parker.
Reviews of Charlie Parker novels:
The Wolf in Winter 2014
The Whisperers 2010
The Lovers 2009
The Reapers 2008
On Ross Macdonald:
Reviews of James Lee Burke novels:
Pegasus Descending 2006