by Vivien Horler
John Connolly is affable and amusing, sitting at a table at the V&A Waterfront on a shining and breezy winter’s day.
It’s hard to see him as the dark imagination behind A Time of Torment, the latest in his best-selling Charlie Parker series.
Here’s a line from chapter one to give you a sense of the flavour: “Physical pain was finite, for ultimately the body would surrender the soul, but emotional agony was capable of infinite variations, and the subtlest of modifications might release from the wound a new torrent of distress.”
These are the thoughts of a character who has kidnapped a child and who plans to kill her, not to make her suffer, but to keep those who love her in agony forever.
But this is what novelists do – create worlds that intrigue and mystify and make the reader want more.
And Charlie Parker fans know what they’re getting into.
Parker is a private investigator with two dodgy but loyal sidekicks, Angel and Louis. Parker fights evil and will use whatever tools come to hand to win his battles.
In this new novel, Jerome Burnel, a jewellery salesman with a valuable stash of diamonds in his jacket pocket, happens to stop at a family-run filling station which, just minutes later, is held up by a couple of thugs.
During the process, a deputy sheriff pulls up outside and is shot dead. No one expects anything from the mild-mannered Burnel, but he too is armed and he shoots the attackers dead.
Briefly Burnel is a hero, having saved the filling station family, but then it emerges there are vast amounts of kiddy porn on his home computer, and despite protestations of innocence, he goes to jail for five years. Now he has been freed, and he turns to Charlie Parker because he has a very big problem.
He tells Parker how he was tormented and repeatedly raped in jail by a man called Harpur Griffin, who, during the final assault before Griffin’s release, tells him repeatedly: “This is for the Dead King. This is for the Dead King.”
Griffin, it emerges, has links to an isolated rural community, a community with long memories and a reputation for extreme violence. They live in the Cut, and they never forget an insult. Burnel’s immediate problem on his release is that the two men who shot him at the filling station are sons of the Cut, and he believes their friends and family will come for him. Can Parker help?
Parker agrees to take on the case. What follows is mayhem, murder, burnings, rape, as well as the Cut’s worship of the Dead King, a chittering entity of bones – bones from who knows how many different bodies.
And at the centre of it all is the avenging Charlie Parker, “a weapon in the hands of an unseen god”.
It’s a gripping but horrific tale, and by the end of the book very few of the characters are still alive.
There is evil here in spades, but there’s a lot of bad in the real world, says Connolly over his coffee at the Waterfront.
He discusses some of the characters from the Cut, one of whom is potentially noble but flawed, another who is merely ruthless and ambitious.
“No one’s the villain in their own story,” he says. “People do what they believe is the right thing, even if it is for the wrong reasons.”
Referring to the Cut’s second-in-command, Cassander, who turns out to be possibly the worst of all, Connolly says: “He’s an ambitious, ruthless guy who feels he could do the job better, like a lot of number twos. A lot of evil is the consequence of fear and rage and pain.”
Connolly, who does prison visits, says people aren’t bad, as such, but they often do bad things. I ask him, what about the real baddies, like gang leaders?
Well, they’re usually not the ones doing the killings, he says. “Killing people attracts attention. The killing is left to the dumb ones, those who’re not going to stay alive for very long.”
He also points out he is writing fiction. “We writers make criminals much more interesting than they really are. Mystery fiction is interesting because of the gap between the law and justice. The actual law isn’t interesting.”
Connolly’s story races on, and his language is frequently memorable: “It was the kind of bar where everyone knew your name, as long as your name was M*****f*****.” Or: “… drawing glares from Miss Queenie that could freeze piss on an icicle”.
Currently, Connolly is finishing off his next Charlie Parker novel, to be titled A Game of Ghosts, and he is also working on “a piece of literary fiction that I can’t talk about”.
He smiles cheerfully and moves off to do another interview. I look at the view of mountain and sunshine on water, and give a shiver.
* A Time of Torment by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton