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Crime, and the supernatural: John Connolly

BRATTLEBORO—What can possibly hurt a man who has already lost everything?

“It’s an awful liberation,” said author John Connolly of his protagonist, Charlie Parker, whose wife and daughter were viciously murdered in Connolly’s first book, Every Dead Thing.

“Compared to the original, any pain will largely pale in significance,” he said.

According to Connolly’s publisher, Atria Books, “Every Dead Thing broke new ground in crime fiction by fusing hard-boiled realism with glimpses of the supernatural.”

In The Burning Soul, the 10th Charlie Parker mystery released September 2011, private investigator and former NYPD detective Parker finds himself caught between hunting the blackmailer of a former inmate who murdered a 12-year-old girl and searching for a kidnapped 14-year-old.

The Irish author sets the Parker novels in Maine, a state Connolly has called his second home for 20 years.

Connolly said he has never written a novel set in Ireland and probably never will.

Redemption is at the heart of Charlie Parker’s journey. Parker navigates a world imbued by the supernatural that sometimes helps characters and sometimes is pure evil.

Connolly describes Parker’s relationship with evil as almost fatalism. The grief and pain of losing his family opens Parker to understanding and empathy. His reaching out to help others has taught him to manage intense emotional and psychological pain.

Connolly said his Catholic faith inspired his interest in compassion, justice, and redemption. Quoting Edmund Burke, Connolly said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men stand by and do nothing.”

Connolly said all his books also touch on childhood. He’s curious about those moments when children understand the world and its hardness, perhaps prompted by the loss of a parent.

Connolly started his professional writing career as a newspaperman, a job that paid him to write and provided training for novel writing.

One day, a superior told him that if he stayed at the newspaper, “you’ll make a good hack.”

“He meant it in the nicest way,” said Connolly.

But he realized if he stayed too long, his heart and skill would atrophy.

The now full-time writer said he has continued to stretch his craft. “I’ve never written a book I didn’t want to write,” said Connolly who rarely signs more than a two-book deal. He has also taken breaks from the Parker series to write young adult novels and the “adult fairy tale,” The Book of Lost Things.

Connolly said he can’t ignore that writing pays the mortgage, but he strives to balance the commercial realities with taking pride in his craft.

He knew that writing the young adult books like The Gates wouldn’t garner him as much money as books in the Charlie Parker series.

“But you can’t always expect to be paid for a new skill,” Connolly said. “If you want to stretch yourself, you’ll have to take hits slightly.”

The crime genre throws characters into situations where they must take a stand, he said.

“Crime fiction gives readers more justice than law,” he said.

Connolly said he doesn’t like to give readers “too easy a ride” when it comes to seeing the difference between law and justice.

The author views the mystery genre as conservative, stemming from a deep fear of chaos and disorder.

According to Connolly, most crime novels from the United Kingdom have police officers as lead characters. In the United States, however, the leads tend toward private investigators on the law’s edge, trying to navigate corrupt systems.

Connolly said he thinks this distinction sprouts from many Americans’ distrust of the establishment. He points to the sub-genre of California crime fiction that came into its own in a world where the wealthy stored police officers in their back pockets.

Yet in American crime fiction, the hope for order and justice remains.

The mystery genre also does not like to mix with other genres, said Connolly.

Connolly “got it in the neck” for blending the supernatural into the first Parker book, he said. Mysteries thrive on rationalism, he added.

Sleuths like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot with his “little grey cells” optimize a world where behind every crime lies a logical, ordered, clear reason.

Yet, such a rational genre did not take root in Ireland.

“Irish people distrust rationalism as a way of seeing the world,” said Connolly. “The world is a lot stranger than that.”

Connolly will share a special edition of a short Charlie Parker story for people who stop by the Mystery on Main Street bookstore on April 14 between noon and 2 p.m. To learn more about Connolly and his work, visit www.johnconnollybooks.com.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #147 (Wednesday, April 11, 2012).

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