Where’s the Atlas?

Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea

John Connolly: THE WOMAN IN THE WOODS. Hodder & Stoughton 2018. 467 pp.

John Connolly: A BOOK OF BONES. Hachette 2019. 707 pp

RRP: $32.99 each.

Dubliner John Connolly has won legions of fans for his Charlie Parker novels. You won’t find his name mentioned with Colm Toíbín or John Boyne or Ann Enright, but writers such as those would probably be quite happy to have his success in terms of the numbers of his books sold around the world.

The Charlie Parker books are set in America, most of them in Maine, near the Canadian border. Parker is a private investigator, unconventional in many ways, not least of which is what can be called a spiritual or ethereal element in his thinking. In the first book in the series – this is Number 16 – his daughter was killed, but she still speaks with him when he is in some difficulty.51LBWy3ApDL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Here, that element of otherworldliness is taken further. The bad guys are chasing after some underground deity and in particular a map of that person’s domain. They hire an Englishman to find a book which is reputed to be a guide to that nebulous region – it is called the Atlas. His name is Quayle and he is accompanied in his lethal travels by a woman named Mors, a name which is not coincidentally the Latin word for death.

The missing book is supposed to be in the possession of a woman who is running from her violent husband; after she dies in childbirth, her son is taken in by another woman and raised as her own. During the course of the story, this boy communicates with his dead mother and also with Parker’s daughter. It is only the lively prose that keeps a reader continuing in the face of such mischievous fancy.

Quayle and Mors survive the final showdown to return to London, but Parker still holds part of the famous Atlas. And to impress upon us that there is another book in this story, we find our killer completing a Times cryptic crossword which has two clues that mesh to give the message charlieparker as the answer to an Across clue and huntsquayle as a Down answer with the letter h common to both. The book ends with Quayle no longer feeling ‘alone and unwatched. He folded the newspaper, and left the Jamaica to lose himself in crowds.’

Connolly’s books seem to be getting longer, perhaps a hint that he is enjoying himself and in truth if you are a fan, you will enjoy them too. The mayhem is there of course – characters are carefully introduced and some pages later, they are dead: in this book, the body count, even by gun-happy American standards, is high.

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You complain about the length of Book 16, and this is how the author responds. Book 17 is a monster, reaching more than 700 pages and taking the story of the search for the mysterious Atlas to its gory but merciful conclusion, the action moving away from America to Holland and England. Though A Book of Bones is a continuation of The Woman in the Woods, it stands on its own and in truth even if you have not read any of his earlier works, you will enjoy how the author manages to turn up even more imaginative ways for evil-doers to ply their lethal trades.

You won’t have any trouble getting into the swing of things, because the killings and mayhem start early, this time in the border state of Arizona, where Mexican reprobates mix their mischief with local miscreants. But we soon go north again to Boston and New York for a brief interlude to allow for Parker and his sidekicks Angel and Louis to be sent to Europe on dubious FBI expenses. The remainder of the story is set in Amsterdam and various parts of England. At this stage, a map of that country would be an advantage to the reader, unless you are comfortable moving between London, Manchester, Newcastle and points between.

You will note that I suggested a map rather than an Atlas, because that is a word that comes in this story, accompanied by a capital letter and much bloodshed. It is a document which is still being sought by Quayle and his smelly sidekick Pallida Mors, aided by some local psychopaths. For a reason that is not entirely clear, Quayle needs the Atlas in order to help precipitate some version of the End Days.

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It may of course, be that the reasoning is explained in the long diversions that the author uses, sometimes with a different and shaded typeface, and which a reader may well decide to skip in the interests of having a life. There are times when you may feel that the book is to be presented as part of some obscure study into primitive religions and the author is keen to dot or cross appropriate letters in the interests of academic rigour.

 But, those historical digressions aside, the book captures the reader’s attention and never lets go. Connolly’s mastery of American idiom and his imitation of the smart-arse badinage made popular in the Raymond Chandler stories seems to be impeccable and has been praised by readers and reviewers in America, where the Dubliner has a thriving following. Evildoers are described as ‘occupying a position pretty low down on the food chain: where they existed, they ate it raw.’ Another is ‘not morally bankrupt, just overdrawn.’ A small-town store is ‘lit enough you could see the labels on the bottles, but not the use-by date.’

Then there are the asides that brighten up the day for the reader and keep him plodding towards the far-off 700-plus. Here, for example, is an explanation of the art scene. ‘Many of the most elite galleries and auction houses regard scandals, court cases, and the occasional confiscation of stolen works as part of the cost of doing business. They’re irritants, but no more than that.’ Or the reason why the acronym CRO still persisted among British police for the Criminal Records Office, long after the name of that body had been changed: ‘… most police retained an instinctive suspicion of change – an instinctive suspicion of everything, really, which is why they were police.’

And as for the occult and animist underpinning of the story, that element is most cogently expressed in phrases that occur more than once: ‘The earth remembers … Mostly, all it takes is a little blood.’ And in John Connolly’s books, there is no shortage of that ingredient.

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tinteán collective.

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