- 18 Sep 20
John Connolly’s beloved supernatural gumshoe Charlie Parker returns for another caper in The Dirty South, but rather than continuing the series chronologically, Connolly takes us back to near the start. “It was a chance to remind readers who have grown quite comfortable that actually there’s nothing admirable about him,” he tells Pat Carty.
For the eighteenth entry - or the nineteenth if you include the novella in the short story collection, Nocturnes - in his critically lauded/cash register busting, good versus very evil detective series, John Connolly goes back to a 1997 where Charlie Parker, having just lost his wife and daughter to violence, heads south to Arkansas, following the trail of similar crimes. It’s a welcome entry in the saga, for readers old and new, but did Connolly have to, God help us, actually re-read his own early work in preparation?
“I tried to,” Connolly laughs. “There are probably worse forms of torture - I wouldn't want to be waterboarded - but reading my own work would be close to them. My other half Jenny actually ended up reading the book, she did the heavy living and pointed out little inconsistencies. The hope is you’re kind of improving as the years go by, but every so often someone says 'I love your first book' and the unspoken things is, well, actually, you could have just stopped there!”
Were notes kept, a trove of reference that the author could look back on?
“I used to keep such things, but I realised the longer it sits in the drawer, the less likely I am to use it. I've learned over the years - and it's an error that I certainly made earlier on – that you really throw out 95%. You’re tempted to include so much but it just clutters the book.”
Accepted wisdom says that writers do indeed improve with age. Connolly agrees, but points out how readers’ expectations are often tied up with their own experience.
“It's often the book with which you discover somebody,” he explains. “I love Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke simply because that was the book that introduced me to Burke, who, if he was sitting here, would say 'I've written much better books since' and maybe he has, but that’s the one that introduced me to this world.”
Musicians are expected to do their best work early, but with writers it seems to be the other way around.
“I think, especially with popular music, so much of it is tied up with conceptions of youth,” Connolly argues. “Look at someone like Van Morrison. Nobody has the same affection for his new stuff as they do for Veedon Fleece, and I'd presume he'd tell them that they're wrong anyway! I think it's more forgiving of genre writers because a lot of people's affections are tied up with character. If you can give them a period of time with that character each year, they'll forgive the odd bad book.”
The Wolf In Winter
Warming to the topic, Connolly expands on it.
“I think writers have it much easier, but they do go through troughs. I'm a big admirer of John le Carré, but you can clearly see that period from the late eighties into the nineties, where the cold war had ended, he's struggling a little bit to find a new way to write about betrayal, because that's all that le Carré has ever written about. He had that great metaphor of spies and the cold war and then that fell by the wayside. One of the first books I was ever asked to review, after I was published, when I suddenly became acceptable as a reviewer, was a book by le Carré called Single & Single. I'd actually just met him, he was signing in a bookstore when I was signing my first book, and very kindly signed a copy of it. I read the book, and it wasn't a very good, it wasn't prime le Carré. I think he was maybe looking at someone like John Grisham and thinking, ‘I could probably do something like that’. So I wrote the review and looking back on it, it was glib and unkind and he deserved better, and it's the only time I've ever apologised to someone later. He came back with a lovely line - 'That's not a book I would want to be buried with' - so even le Carré, looking back, saw that as a problematical period in his career. I know there are people who will look at my work and see, after 21 years, books they didn’t like quite as much, and that has to have been my fault, I suppose.”
Le Carré's last book, Agent Running In The Field, has his hero looking back on the cold war glory days, perhaps to represent the author’s own feelings.
“Yeah, and he went back to that whole Smiley era with A Legacy of Spies as well, which I really liked because it's going back to what we said earlier, I was happy to just be spending time with Smiley again, and le Carré, while a very literary writer, is writing within a recognisable genre in those books.”
It’s a trope that’s rare outside of genre fiction, which is something Connolly finds hard to fathom.
“I'm sometimes surprised at how reluctant more literary writers are to go back to a character because there are huge advantages to it. I quite like that fact that, if I'm spared, I will have been writing about Parker growing older for probably twenty or thirty years. People like John Updike, who went back in the Rabbit and Bech books to explore how characters had aged over time, and Richard Ford, who did it with the Frank Bascombe novels, are actually the exceptions, and yet, there's a great deal of pleasure both for readers and writers in revisiting a character, and using books as chapters of a larger narrative.”
A Game Of Ghosts
There is the danger with a large body of work that concentrates on one character that readers can find it hard to choose a starting point.
“Yes,” Connolly concedes. “Sixteen books into a conversation, it's like joining a joke or an anecdote that's been going on for half an hour. It’s much easier sometimes for readers to look at a series where they're only three or four novels into it, rather than to begin engaging with this quite long, narrative history.”
This line of thought prompts the mention John’s last Parker novel, A Book Of Bones. I admit that I’ve yet to read it and Connolly turns into my Ma. “I’m not angry, Pat. I’m just disappointed.” I remember a review saying “Don’t start here.”
“Oh, that's absolutely fair,” he agrees. “The easiest way to make a good living out of genre fiction is to write discrete episodes in the character's history, but why can't there be a larger narrative? Why can't we rely on the readers memory like fantasy literature or historical fiction often does? Until the television series of Game of Thrones came along, people were expected to retain a certain memory of all of these characters, and they managed to.”
All that being said, The Dirty South functions as a stand-alone Parker outing. It might even remind the reader of a Jack Reacher episode, which is high praise.
“Sometimes it's nice to provide, maybe for purely commercial reasons, an entry point for readers. They can see whether they enjoy it, and they’ll read it in a different way from somebody who's read the entire series. There are things in the narrative where, if you read the later books, you'd go ‘A-ha! I know that echoes something that comes later’. But it is a chance for people to join in, and it's very much a Western, it very deliberately references Louis L'Amour at the start of it.”
A Song Of Shadows
Connolly, unsurprisingly, had plenty to say about the ridiculous and antiquated notion that literary fiction is somehow inherently superior to genre fiction.
“That’s not an argument I ever want to get into,” says he, before getting into it. “I think there’s always going to be an element of snobbery about genre. For most of the 20th century we have had a reluctance to engage with genre fiction in Ireland, because we were in the process, I think, of nation building and literature has a part to play in that. There's a general sense that it's not serious enough. There’s a great bloom of mystery writing in America and the UK in the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, and we don't have one because we're in the middle of The Troubles. It’s very difficult for Irish writers, I feel, to write genre fiction, commercial fiction, and particularly fiction about crime when so much crime in Ireland is tied up at the time with terrorism. So when there was a lot of development going on in the genre, it was kind of stagnant here.”
“It’s really only at the end of the ‘90s, and the start of the new century, that we begin engaging again with genre fiction, and we're playing catch up, but we’re taking huge steps. Genre fiction is taken very seriously at university level, it's taught at UCD in particular, and in Trinity now, they're very big on horror and fantasy. They have a lot of younger academics who don't have those preconceptions. And newspapers and magazines like your own are very generous in reviewing genre fiction. So I think it's really only a couple of holdouts now who think there's this vast gap.”
Our established tradition, and the ever-present spectres of Joyce, Yeats and all the rest of them, would sometimes seem to dictate that “serious writing” is the only option.
“You're absolutely right. That was the heavy weight of tradition,and there was always a certain expectation of what an Irish writer should be. For a long time, so many of our writers were more admired than read. Look at how many Irish writers really struggled to actually make a living from what they were doing. It was all very well to be part of the tradition, but they were struggling to make ends meet, like Flann O'Brien not making any money in his lifetime. And yet what's really interesting is the moment it all changes, and actually it is a female writer. Maeve Binchy’s Light A Penny Candle is the first time you really have an Irish writer making the transition into genre fiction and becoming hugely commercially successful outside Ireland.”
“People start exploring something that really hasn't been explored in quite the same way in Ireland before. The other big difference was Roddy Doyle winning the booker, with Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. There's no denying the literary quality of it, and it's also easy to read.”
Doyle did become more “literary” as he went along.
“Yeah, but what about the early funny stuff?I really like Roddy Doyle but I think maybe after the Booker, there was an expectation that perhaps the work had to be more serious. Whatever about genre fiction, comedic literature is always going to be underrated. If you make people laugh, it will always be assumed that you're not serious.”
The Flann problem?
“Exactly, even in Northern Ireland at the time, with Colm Bateman, the only way of writing about terrorism was by pretending that you were being funny. It was a kind of joke and yet, there's a kind of terrible bleakness to the laughter in those books. That’s serious satire.”
The Killing Kind
Long time time followers will notice a dearth of the supernatural in The Dirty South, usually a prominent feature of the Parker chronicles.
“There’s a moment in Every Dead Thing where Parker becomes aware, and I suppose in this book he's not at that stage yet,” Connolly explains. “He becomes aware when he becomes empathic. Here, he's not a person you’d particularly want around you. The Reverend Pettle asks him ‘are you the white saviour, come to save all the poor black woman’ and Parker tells him he doesn’t care about any of them, black or white, male or female.”
This bad bastard side of Parker instigates a bar fight.
“Yeah, he wants somebody to hurt him, anything to distract from his own pain. It was a chance to remind readers who have grown quite comfortable that actually he may have killed somebody. There's nothing admirable about him, he's difficult, grief stricken and angry, as you would be.”
The saviour Parker comes later, he chooses the side of the angels.
“He takes on other people's suffering,” Connolly offers. “I was very influenced by the Ross Macdonald and if you read the Archer books, that's essentially what his character is. Parker isn't quite that character yet, he takes a long time to reach that stage, where he's just unable to turn away.”
A Time Of Torment
A belief in evil as a real presence runs through the books, evil as a well that characters draw from. Such a belief suggests the opposite also exists. Can we extrapolate from this that the author has faith in something greater than himself?
“I retain the hope of it, especially in the times we're living in right now,” Connolly reasons. “It seems a false hope at times, a very difficult one. It's something that I've always liked exploring in the books because it's a lot easier than explaining it in life. Parker, in the later books, wears a very old Byzantine Pilgrim's cross, and that's the only piece of jewellery I wear. I'm not sure what my belief system is anymore, but there is a certain comfort in wearing it. I think there just has to be something better than me out there. I wouldn't like to think that there wasn't, that would be really depressing. Yeah, I still have a degree of faith.”
A belief in something better implies a belief in something worse, an acceptance that evil is indeed present in the real world.
“There are extremes of human behaviour that seems so extreme, beyond justification, and beyond explanation And I suppose the books suggest that in those moments, individual human beings tap into something much older. Mystery fiction is ideally suited to that discussion of the nature of evil and justice, the difference between the law and justice, the idea of redemption, of reparation, and morality. All those things quite naturally adhere to that structure of the mystery novel.”
Connolly has been pulled up on the notion of class in his work before, an ever-so-slight predilection for casting the well-off as the bad guys, and it’s there again in The Dirty South. He’s having none of it, mind.
“I think we might have been Victor Hugo, but somebody once said that people without bread are always right. I get criticised an awful from more conservative American media, who seem to feel that I'm some raging liberal, next door to a communist, but I just don't believe that - especially because I’ve spent quite a lot of time in The States and we have our house there - you should be left to suffer or to die because you can't afford proper health care, because you can't afford insurance. I don't believe that. This weird, and it's a very American thing, idea that, if you go to the southern states, you hear these preachers who say, ‘Well, you're rich, because God wants you to be rich. God is rewarding you’. And the fact that you're a rich person means that you're probably also a good person, because surely God would not reward somebody who isn't deserving? And the flip side of that is all those poor people around you who can barely keep a roof over their heads, maybe they're not quite as good as you are.”
“Woody Allen said that if Christ came back tomorrow, and saw all the people who call themselves Christians, he'd never stopped vomiting. So there is that conception in the books that the powerful and the wealthy should not be able to ride roughshod over the powerless and the poor. And yeah, I'll stand over that.”
The White Road
It’s a question that Connolly must get asked a lot but Parker is an obvious candidate for the TV boxset treatment.
“There is a script. Some TV company is adapting the first novel, and that's been shopped around. They very kindly sent me the script for comment, and that was my involvement with it so far. There's a huge appetite for material that can be translated into long form television now but the downside is that they're given less time to bed in. If it doesn't pick up an audience very quickly, it can fall by the wayside. But, yeah, there are people looking at it, and I'll happily use the money to pay for a yacht. Although I get sea sick and I can't wear white pants, so I'm not sure I'm going to buy a yacht.”
I would argue that, if twelve episodes of Parker appeared on a streaming service tomorrow, people would jump on it.
“It's still a considerable investment,” Connolly counters. “They're actually looking at committing to quite a lot of books that may have a conclusion at some point. I was very protective of them for a very long time. You have to be sure that you’re committing to the right people, because otherwise you go to the grave without having seen anything at all.”
The success of the novels must have allowed the author the luxury to step back and wait.
“I'm not sure. A lot of these things are out of your hands. If success allowed me to do anything, it was to deviate from the Parker Books when I wanted. They bought me a little bit of room to experiment, and to fail.”
Connolly mentioned a conclusion there. Is Parker’s end in sight?
“If I go back to my regular checkups and a doctor says ‘I wouldn't book a holiday after next November’, I would certainly be able to provide people with a conclusion they would find satisfying, one I've had in mind for a long time and I'm happy with it. But I still enjoy writing these books.”
The Connolly/Parker relationship is not akin then to Conan Doyle’s resentment of Holmes?
“God no, not at all. Let me get back to writing my great Russian novel? Poor old Conan Doyle thought everybody wanted to read these historical fictions but they just wanted Sherlock Holmes. Every writer, if they’re going to survive, finds where commercial success and creative satisfaction intersect. You find a point at which you're content to rest. Thankfully, I've been able to find that point, and it's brought me a great deal of peace. I don't worry as much as I might have done when I was in my 30s or early 40s. I'm pretty content.”
The Dirty South is out now, published by Hodder & Stoughton.
How I Finally Got Van Morrison
By John Connolly
I was an absurdly late convert to Van Morrison, but that may well be true of my relationship with a lot of classic music from the ‘60s and early ‘70s. I hit my teens in the very early ‘80s, and so the music of that era was formative for me. Acts originating in the ‘60s, The Beatles apart, seemed impossibly distant, even if they were still recording.
When I was in my twenties, I discovered Neil Young, and drove with my friend Mark – a much more established fan of both Young and Van – to Slane to see him in 1993. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and I can remember sitting on the hill listening to Van, who was one of the support acts, and thinking, “You know, this guy isn’t half bad…” And then I did nothing about it, occasional late-night listening parties at Mark’s house apart (I liked ‘Did Ye Get Healed?’ from Poetic Champions Compose a lot, I recall), but instead continued to immerse myself in Neil Young for the next decade or so, admittedly with a certain amount of diminishing returns.
When I began publishing, I grew close to Paul Charles, occasionally of the Hot Press parish, who worked with Van for many years, and was a huge proselytiser for his work, Astral Weeks in particular. (Funny, I still admire Astral Weeks more than I like it.) Paul probably wore me down, in the nicest possible way. As I entered my forties, I made a conscious decision to explore Van’s music properly, and bought a cheap boxed-set of three albums – Moondance, Tupelo Honey, and Veedon Fleece, I think – and the last two in particular just grabbed me.
I got him, for the first time. And perhaps it’s no bad thing to have discovered him in my forties, because it’s adult music. In the same vein, I now appreciate Joni Mitchell in a way I don’t think I would have in my twenties, or even my thirties. I now have a pretty impressive rack of Van albums on CD, and a couple on vinyl, and I forked out for the two limited-editions of his lyrics published by Faber.
Thanks to the efforts of David Torrans at No Alibis bookstore in Belfast, Van even signed copies of his first book of lyrics for Stephen King, to mark his seventieth birthday, and James Lee Burke, when he turned eighty, so I’d like to think I’ve atoned for the errors of my youth…