- 31 Aug 21
Assassins out for revenge chase Serbian gangsters across Europe. The Nameless Ones is “something I haven’t done before,” crime maestro John Connolly tells Pat Carty. Portraits: Mark Condren.
It would doubtless be more appropriate to confer with master thriller writer John Connolly in the dark shadows of some old, oak-panelled barroom but the sun is shining and we’re not allowed inside anyway. It at least makes a change from the last time we spoke. The world had just started to collapse so rather than enjoy a cup of coffee in at least the same postcode, as we do today, we spoke down our respective screens. Shuddering at this memory leads to the inevitable question about how Connolly occupied himself in the interim.
“All I did was work, but I quite like working. I find it very hard to relax, even if I'm on holiday. I have the journalist’s deadline thing so I’ll set a target and I’ll work to it.”
This should come as no surprise to seasoned Connolly fanciers as the man is a veritable writing machine. Since the publication of 1999’s best-selling Every Dead Thing, which launched his supernatural shamus Charlie Parker, he’s maintained a work rate that would have embarrassed Prince. His latest, The Nameless Ones, is the twentieth Parker Universe tome – novellas included - and that’s not to mention other work like the marvellous He, about Stan, Ollie’s mate, more on which anon.
“It was started in November 2019, and finished during lockdown,” Connolly explains about the gestation of this one. “How long was this going to go on? Should I change the book and have everybody wearing masks?’ You can’t underestimate the value of escapism, however. I stuck with people hopping off planes left, right and centre.”
If the last one, The Dirty South, was a western then this is an international thriller.
“I love those books,” Connolly enthusiastically agrees. “I have a weakness for Daniel Silva novels. I suspect the international geopolitical situation is more complicated than Israel is good, everybody else is bad, but they are perfectly entertaining beach reads. Each Parker book is, I think, quite distinct. Next year's book is two short novels, because that's something I haven't done before.”
He does churn them out – you can feel the quality and the width. Do publishers ever tell him to slow down?
“I'm very fortunate to be a full time writer and, by and large, I write 1000-1500 words a day.”
That’s not nothing.
“But If you do that five days a week for six months,” he continues, “you have the draft, and, in the meantime, I can edit something else, because they’re two different muscles, so I can be reasonably productive without having to work 24 hours a day.”
There must be days, like us all, when he just can’t be arsed.
“Oh yeah, but that’s a slippery slope,” he warns. “For every day I take off, it takes another to get back in. If I take a week off, it's another week before I find my stride again, that's a lot of productive time. I do say to people who are trying to write, you need a bit every day, but do your 300 words, and then go play with your kids because you've done what you set out to do. I think a lot of writers would say it's quite nice to stop halfway through a sentence.”
Hemingway said you should stop while the going is good.
“Yeah, it's nice to know what the first couple of lines will be in the morning, because starting with the blank page is very difficult. If you've got a rhythm though, you should probably stick with it. That’s probably true of musicians as well.”
You’re talking about practicing?
"Practicing and working every day and realising that it's a muscle. And if you don't exercise it, it begins to deteriorate very, very quickly. Some days you're gonna think, okay, I really couldn't be arsed, and yet, an hour later, you're at your desk, and you've produced something. It won't be great, but six months or a year later, when you’ve revise it fifteen times, no one is going to know. And I would rather have something on the page than nothing.”
Have something to throw in the bin?
“Yeah, and that's a learned experience. I remember reading an interview with Martin Amis many years ago, who said don't talk about craft, it's art or nothing, but art comes out of craft and that drudgery of days when you don't want to.”
90% perspiration, 10% inspiration?
In order to research The Nameless Ones – Parker’s loveable assassin associates, Louis and Angel, chase a couple of very bad Serbian brothers across Europe - Connolly did hop on some planes himself, going to Vienna and Belgrade before such trips became impossible.
“Going to Vienna is one thing, and going to Belgrade is another,” he laughs, catching my raised eyebrow. “I had become really curious about Serbia because they're trying to enter the EU. [The officially applied for membership in 2009, negotiations are ongoing.] And they're regarded as a captured economy where it’s corrupt from the top down, and that's going to present huge problems. I know it’s a bit unfair, but the Serbians make pretty good villains.”
“There's a military museum where you've got this fascinating history of butchery going back centuries, involving Turks and imperial Serbia. Then, after the death of Tito [communist president of Yugoslavia for twenty-seven years until his demise in 1980], everything stops. It picks up again when the Serbians begin joining UN peacekeeping missions. They've written out the war. People don't really talk about it. The closest I came was a driver, who’s quoted in the book, saying a lot of bad things happened and most of them were our fault, which is the most succinct summation of the Balkan Wars I've ever heard.”
Several of Connolly’s characters relate memories of the conflict without hitting you over the head, and without diluting the thrill of the chase, but did the plot come first or the notion of examining this era of European history? A straight forward enough question, you might think, but it serves as a springboard into the deep end for a storyteller like Connolly, who first of all tells me how he came across Vienna’s Friedhof der Namenlosen, the Cemetery of the Nameless that gave the book a title.
“Start with an idea. And then you go looking at places. I was talking to a writer there who told me how he and his girlfriend took a trip out to this cemetery where the anonymous dead of the Danube were washed up, and you think ‘I can go to the gorgeous Museum, or go look at the Lipizzaner stallions, or I can take an underground and then a tram, and then walk for twenty minutes to an industrial site to look at a cemetery’. But by doing that, the whole book came together. I took a flight to Belgrade, because I knew I was going to use the Balkan Wars in some way, but I didn't know how. I'd read a little bit about the Vlach [a native ethnic group of Eastern Serbia, and elsewhere] so you hire a driver and say, ‘listen, we're going to look for witches.’”
“Luckily, he was able to speak English, but we couldn't find any because it’s actually quite hard to find a witch, they don't wear hats. Lo and behold, there's a woman in the museum who only speaks Swedish and Serbian. She says there’s a Vlach guy in her kitchen. She locks up the museum and we go to this guy and he's quite happy to talk about this fascinating background. They have a really curious mix of Christianity and, I won’t say ancestor worship, but certainly a consciousness of ancestors. They build these quite ornate tombs with couches in them and TVs, because they believe the dead are going to be there for a while, and after they've gone, it’ll be your turn, so you might as well make it look nice.”
“I had the idea that I would use mines - you go with some ideas. He said, ‘we don't have mines here, you have to go to Bor, but they have trouble there’. ‘What kind of trouble?’ I asked. ‘They dug too deep. And now they have trouble with demons’. He was perfectly serious. The sun was going down. I asked if they had trouble with them here. ‘No, we have trouble with vampires.’ The driver and I looked at each other. ‘We’ll be heading back now, thanks very much’.”
Connolly reckons he picked up this nose for a story during his previous career in the fourth estate.
“It's a hangover from journalism. I find people immensely interesting. Everybody has a story to tell. It’s the same talking to police or people who diagnose abuse. Journalism taught me that there are no stupid questions.”
Hang on, you haven’t finished talking to me yet.
“There’s always a first.”
Another work of fiction helped light the way.
“I met the woman who wrote Hotel Tito [Ivana Bodrožić]. She had lived that life, her family had been in a hostel for years, promised a house, but she grew up in this tiny little flat, where you can't even really wash properly, and that was probably the seed of it. Her book was fascinating, but I didn’t want pages of italics in mine, ‘I saw the camp materialise in front of me’. You're trying to dole out that information, but you're writing an entertainment that someone might take on the plane to Málaga, so there's a limit to how much you can hammer people. I'm not on a crusade. At the beginning of the book there’s a little summary of these wars but they're hugely complicated. I tried to make it as succinct as possible, and then feed little bits of information along the way.”
Connolly may say he’s not on a crusade, but he appears to be pointing a finger at what people got away with.
"Well, they did. Ratko Mladić [the so-called ‘Butcher Of Bosnia’ who, it is estimated, ordered the deaths of over 8,000 people at Srebrenica alone], the confirmation of his verdict just came through quite recently. These people – himself and Karadžić [First president of Republika Srpska, convicted in 2016 of genocide for the Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims] – hid in plain sight for a very long time, and you can’t do that unless a considerable portion of the population feels that they can excuse something you did, or that it was justified. I think there were a lot of Serbians who felt that Serbia had been hard done by.”
There’s hard done by, and there’s hard done by.
“There’s hard done by and then there's putting people in camps and mass rape. Absolutely,” we agree. “There is this ambivalence in Serbian culture. The Serbian flag is everywhere. There is an imperial memory, Serbia was the biggest empire in that part of the world. The other thing is, you can buy loads of football shirts with Vladimir Putin's name on the back, a lot of their loyalties are not necessarily to a Western Europe who were the opposition during that war and bombed them.”
So should the EU say thanks, but no thanks?
“The idea is that they come in and you are in a better position to deal with the problems left over rather than having them on the outs, perhaps,” Connolly reasons. “These problems haven't gone away, there's still incredible bitterness and frustration over what happened and a feeling that they’ve taken more than their share of the blame. That driver was right. ‘There was a lot of bad things done and most of them were our fault.’”
Connolly’s two central villains this time around are Serbian ex-military gangsters, Spiridon and Radovan Vuksan. Spiridon’s associate Zorya may be a Vlach witch, but there’s nothing supernatural about the brothers. Are they Connolly’s way of reminding us that war crimes are solely the crimes of men?
“I suppose they are,” he allows. “The Parker books have that whole [supernatural] aspect running through them, the stuff involving Angel and Louis doesn't. They don't move in that same world. It’s a chance to set aside a lot of that stuff in a straightforward thriller. The supernatural stuff didn't really fit in this time.”
The Vuksans are bad bastards. The murders that set the whole book rolling are pretty eye opening.
“Actually, everything that happens, happens off the page,” Connolly points out.
So I filled in the details?
“You did and that’s great! I don't really want to write those books anymore, but the brutality is awful, or you wouldn’t want Angel and Louis to come along and sort these guys out.”
The Odd Couple
As we were talking, Undertones singer and decent skin Paul McLoone and far-too-good-for-the-likes-of-him-and-much-better-half Tara Farrell stopped by briefly to say hello. McLoone took the opportunity to compliment Connolly on He. This made me wonder if there are other readers, like Paul, for whom He is Connolly’s best work, readers who wouldn’t know Charlie Parker if he sat down beside them.
“What's curious about it is that I've received more post from middle-aged men. Fiction is dominated by women. Men, by and large, don’t read fiction. A lot of men had never seen male friendship discussed in that way, in fiction, and yet felt the truth of it, because there isn't a man out there or, if there is, he's very unfortunate, who doesn't have a close male friend that maybe dates back to childhood. I got these lovely, touching letters from people describing their own experiences, so it reached a different readership.”
I use this to make a tenuous lob about Louis and Angel being a sort of Laurel and Hardy comic relief in the Parker universe.
“They certainly started out as comic relief and then became a way of making Parker more likeable. You could see things in him that you might admire that they bring out, like a sense of humour. And then they just became more complex as they went on, as a way of examining friendship and loyalty and tenderness.”
The kind of relationship that Parker can’t have for himself?
“He makes a choice. If you're going to involve yourself in the troubles of others, you can't have a family, so he distances his daughter where she's not going to be involved in this and she will have a family background with her grandparents and her mother and he can visit and he gave her the dog. Parker’s not sure if he’s a person who can be in that kind of situation. What he does gives him an outlet for his sadness and his rage. The only functioning relationship is between two gay criminals, which I always thought was quite lovely.”
Have Angel and Louis been infected with Parker’s good intentions as the books have gone on?
“I think they realise that Parker will save them, but it will cost them their lives. I think it’s Louis who says, ‘we’ve become contaminated by morality’, their exposure to this man has made their lives more complicated, and they’ll die in his service, but that will be a better end than what they might have had before.”
Have they, against their better judgement, been imbued with a belief in the supernatural through association?
“I think that's exactly true. In The Reapers [another novel that concentrates on Louis and Angel] there are no supernatural elements because that's still quite early. By now, they've been exposed to so much that they realise something odd is happening. They don't understand it, but Parker doesn't understand it either. At the end game of all of this, the reader will have it explained and everybody will know.”
And finally, has this awareness of another plane of existence given them cause to repent?
“They have put their faith in his vision of the world, and they have accepted that. There’s a quote, I think it’s from Dark Hollow [book #2], ‘They were on the side of the angels, but the angels weren't sure that this was an entirely positive development’, and I always felt that summarised it nicely.”
The Nameless Ones can, like The Dirty South that came before it, be classed as a stand-alone novel within the Parker Universe. Is Connolly recovering in some way from the massive undertaking that culminated in 2019’s weighty A Book Of Bones?
"I've always lived in fear of becoming like season eight of The X-Files where you needed a big book beside you to explain everything that's happening. That's the problem if you write a series that is also a sequence of novels that invites you to read them in order and get a different reading experience. You put people off. That was quite an ambitious six novel sequence that effectively functioned as its own little unit, and somewhere down the line, there may be something more ambitious again, but it becomes counterproductive. it's nice to give people an opportunity to enter the series and be in more or less the same position as everybody else."
That being said, readers who have been there since that start can bring that understanding with them.
"I hope all the books can be read in isolation. It is, I think, a different reading experience if you read them in order because you begin accumulating knowledge, and seeing how events in one book shade into events in book 15. But I still want people to be able to ramble into a bookstore and think, 'I'll have a go at that' and be able to understand it. I try and give enough information that people will understand, it does get hard to keep people up to date, but I do try."
Did he envision this universe building from the start
"It's only after the second or third book, that you begin thinking, 'I may have an opportunity to do things here'. And that was the point certainly after The White Road where I realised that I wasn't going to be thrown back on the street again. That was why I took two years out, I didn't write another Parker novel, I spent two years writing short stories. I did a stand alone really to fill that space, and I thought about what I wanted to do, what opportunities does this offer me to experiment, to do something slightly different with the genre that I love. And then that was the point at which I began to think a couple of books ahead at least."
Talking of thinking ahead, Do you know how the novels are going to end when you start writing them?
"I might know one or two little scenes, but no. When I was writing The Dirty South, I did know how that book ended, but I didn't know anything between that and the beginning, but I knew what the ending would be like."
Is it like a comedian with a punchline who tries to work their way back?
"Yeah, I suppose. When I wrote He, I knew what the last line was. The last line of He was essentially the first line written, I knew what it was moving towards. But that really didn't help with the 70 years that preceded it. I don't usually know what I'm doing, but I quite like it that way. If I knew the beginning, middle and end of a book I wouldn't want to write it, it would be very boring."
That sounds like hard work.
"It's harder work writing this way, but it's also more interesting. You discover the book as you go along."
The question of movie or TV adaptations is inevitable. Connolly sees it coming and gently bats it aside.
"They're still working on the series, they have been approached by an actor who I hadn't had in mind, but who is absolutely perfect, and I think they're really pleased about that."
And you're not going to tell me who that is?
"No. There is progress with The Book Of Lost Things, which I think is being viewed now as - to go back to your universe thing, as a universe. I wrote a script for it during lockdown, and having done the script, what we realised was that to fit it into two hours and 10 minutes meant taking out everything that people liked in the book to begin with. Now, this very nice production company and the people involved with it are looking at expanding it. I've said God bless."
It'll be a ten-hour series?
"Yeah, because that's a book with stories within stories. And effectively one story could form an episode."
Connolly is visibly more enthusiastic when discussing what's coming next.
"In October there is a.. how do I explain it? I haven't really talked about this. I was increasingly bemused by writers and editors in Ireland who viewed genre fiction as something incidental to the Irish literary tradition that was done by odd people in attics. It is absolutely integral, not just to Irish fiction, but to fiction in general. And if you don't understand genre fiction, you're really not understanding fiction, and so in October, a book called Shadow Voices will be published. Its subtitle is '300 years of Irish Genre Fiction, A History in Stories'. It has a very, very long introduction as well as very long introductions, sometimes longer than the stories themselves, to individual stories. It traces the history of genre fiction in Ireland, through romance and science fiction and horror and crime and draws connections. It puts Yeats beside Lord Dunsany, it puts Mary Lavin beside people like L.T. Meade, and it concentrates in particular on women's fiction, on how important genre has been to women, and it tries to present an alternative view of Irish literature. It's nearly 400,000 words long."
It's not just the people we see on t-shirts.
"No, and it's not going to be a James Patterson book, as in 'this is the one that's going to make me money'. It's an attempt to put down a marker."
The last time we spoke, John recommended ten Irish genre books for Hot Press
"At the back of my mind during that, and has been for a while, was how can we reframe this discussion. People do anthologies, but I dislike anthologies that have no critical introduction and have no introductions to the writers, I don't see the point of them."
"This is a book that concentrates on the lives of the writers, how they wrote, why they wrote and then along the way it will go, 'Well, what do we mean when we talk about a novel? What do we mean when we talk about a classic? What do we mean when we talk about science fiction? Where does science fiction originate? Where does horror originate? What do we mean when we talk about the gothic because we use these phrases and take them for granted."
I just stay out of the way, nodding when appropriate.
"It's very hard to find a significant Irish writer who hasn't engaged with genre at some point, and these are products of a very modern sensibility. These are products of a way of thinking from the last century. Only in the kind of 1930s, do we begin making that separation and going 'that's high culture, which is experimental, modernist fiction. And then there's low culture, which is ghosts, and crime'. Up until that point, those distinctions would have seemed very strange to a reader, but they bedevilled genre fiction in Ireland. There are political reasons for it. Douglas Hyde gave a very famous speech in which he said we need to get rid of the penny dreadfuls, because they were English, they were other. And so Irish writers were almost discouraged from writing Genre."
"I think there's seven living writers in it. All the rest are dead. I tried to pick people who I felt offered an opportunity to discuss other things. Ken Bruen is one, who is hugely popular outside Ireland, and that allows you to discuss private eye fiction. Why doesn't that work here? Why is that not part of our culture? Because we don't really do it. Jane Casey, because this is an Irish character in London, and there's a tradition of Irish writers setting their books abroad but not including Irish characters. So why was that happening? I picked people quite carefully so that they enabled me to have a larger discussion. So it's not an anthology, it's very much a history. I may have overreached."
Could people look at this and think that John Connolly wants to be taken seriously?
"It never particularly bothered me before!" he says, accusingly, staring hard. "I was just angry that this great tradition of Irish writing, of which I'm part of a continuum, was not understood, and was essentially belittled. I think it was a chance to say 'let's think about this a little bit differently'. I'm going to present this argument to you and then you can take it away and have a think about it. Being taken seriously has never bothered me terribly much. I remember seeing myself was described as as underrated in the United States. I remember thinking well that's probably better than being overrated, although I imagine overrated probably pays better. I think these things I would have worried about what it was in my 30s. Now I'm just happy to have a job."
Would you still be writing if you hadn’t been successful?
"I probably wouldn't be writing at the obsessive level that I do. For me, it's like people who paint, who don't do it because they think they're gonna sell their stuff in Merrion Square. They do it because it's a way of looking at the world. People play their guitar or their piano as a way of dealing with the world around them and finding your place in it, and there's a pleasure in it."
That’s a good ending.
"Is it? Do you think? Man, I should try writing!"
The Nameless Ones is reviewed here by Pat Carty