Saturday, 20 June 2009

Maine's very own dark knight draws closer to the truth

Review - The Lovers, by John Connolly

Lovers of literature and film are suckers for a tortured soul, and souls don't come any more beaten and crushed than Charlie Parker, the dark hero of this, the seventh offering in Connolly's series about the Maine-based private investigator.

Forget last year's The Reapers, which focused on Parker's deadly sidekicks, Angel and Louis, with Parker supplying a third person cameo. While entertaining and faster than a speeding bullet, The Reapers was Connolly-lite, like supping a shandy when you what you really need is the most potent ale on the menu.

The Lovers opens with Parker working in a bar in Portland, having lost his private investigator's licence at the end of the last fully-fledged Parker novel, The Unquiet. He's been told by the authorities to keep his nose clean - spotless, in fact - and he's doing his best. But this is Parker we're talking about. Spurred on by revelations made by the dangerous and enigmatic Collector in The Unquiet, Parker begins an investigation into his father's suicide three decades ago in an attempt to understand what made Will Parker kill two unarmed teenagers, a boy and a girl.

Perhaps the greatest of Connolly's skills in developing this series has been the way he has balanced the undercurrent of supernatural influences on Parker's life with the possibility that we, the readers, are being totally suckered by an unreliable narrator who is slowly losing the plot following the death of his first wife and daughter, and the estrangement of his second love and daughter. The books have grown in intensity and the bleak mood of The Unquiet suggested a resolution to this issue was coming. The Lovers delivers it, and then some.

As Parker interviews his father's former colleagues, it becomes clear that there was a cover-up into the circumstances that led to his father killing the two young lovers, and indeed his suicide. The Collector had hinted at Charlie having secret 'friends', that even he doesn't know about, and as he peels away the layers of the cover-up, he learns that everything he thought he knew about his family - indeed, his own origins - has been an elaborate, but necessary, deceit.

Running parallel to Parker's first person-related investigation is the emergence of the lovers of the title, as they close in on Parker. This element is told third person, a device that Connolly has used increasingly in the Parker books, and further evidence to undermine the unreliable narrator theory.

The Parker novels have always had strong themes running throughout - loss, revenge, redemption, hope - and they are again present, but it's betrayal that forms the focus of The Lovers, and the strength of character to forgive that betrayal.

Be in no doubt - this isn't a James Patterson easy-to-digest thriller you're reading here. Crime novels, although that is far too broad a term to define this series, don't come any bleaker. There is humour, of course, and as usual it's bang on the money. But Angel and Louis, whose banter with Parker lights up the darkest night, are mere footnotes in The Lovers. And that is how it should be; this is Parker's story, or rather his father's story.

This is also not a book for newcomers to the Parker series. It does stand alone, as much as it can, but there is so much rich backstory here, with characters from earlier books making reappearances, that I can only imagine that, as an introduction to Parker, it would be something of a hollow experience.

For Parker fans, that is not an issue. The Lovers might just be the best Parker novel yet. It may not have a Mr Pudd, Brightwell or Caleb Kyle for a villain, or have the pace and action of earlier novels, but Connolly's writing is sensational. Much of the story is told either in flashback or recounted by characters to Parker; little happens in the here and now, and it takes some writing chops to create such an intense story with Parker, by and large, being talked at by others.

Connolly has hinted that he has the end of the Parker series in his mind. He knows how it will be resolved, it's just a question of how long it takes to get there. Given the developments in The Lovers, there is a sense that we are building to a crescendo and I don't think there will be too many books left. Three, maybe four. And this, too, is as it should be, as Parker deserves some closure. Still, it will be one hell of a ride getting there.


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John Quirk said...

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