It’s been 20 years since Charlie Parker, policeman-turned-private eye, unleashed his compelling brand of retribution on to the literary scene. His creator, Irish writer John Connolly, caused a stir in 1999 with his genre mash-up, Every Dead Thing, which blended crime fiction with horror and the supernatural.
South Africa features heavily not only in Connolly’s literary story but also in his personal one. “This was the first place I ever did a book tour outside the UK. I had people throwing wine at me and I thought: ‘This is why I became a writer! This is fantastic! More!’ And it’s odd how much a part of my life South Africa has become. I met Jennie [Ridyard], and we have the house in McGregor and it feels kind of homey in a way.
“I came only to sell a book – and I got all this other stuff to take back. ‘Here, take this wine, here, take my daughter – no, really, take her’,” he says, laughing.
It wasn’t only Ridyard, his life partner, who was taken with Connolly. His Charlie Parker books – 17 of them to date – have sold 44 000 copies here and his young adult series, The Chronicles of The Invaders, co-written with Ridyard, have sold 6 000 copies. A bestseller in South Africa is anything above 3 000 copies.
Parker’s latest instalment, A Book of Bones, is much thicker than usual, and I wonder whether the apocalypse has finally come for Parker. Connolly laughs. “You could probably have ended this series with this book, but I still enjoy writing about these characters.
“The novels are not discreet episodes, they have become part of a larger narrative. And this book, A Book of Bones, ties up a sequence of six novels (which began with The Wolf in Winter). It takes the narrative up to a point where I thought, ‘I’m not sure where you can go after this’, so the next book, The Dirty South [coming in May 2020], is set before the events of Every Dead Thing.”
It is just as well Connolly still enjoys writing about his characters, not only Parker but his dangerous hitmen pals, Angel and Louis, because readers insist.
“People who don’t read genre fiction think people read for plot, but it’s really not. People read for character, all reading is for character. Especially a series, mine or anybody else’s, that goes on for a couple of decades; people develop an affection for character.”
“If you were poor or vulnerable the forces of law and order had no interest in you whatsoever. So, you couldn’t turn to the police or your local politician
The night before our interview he’d been at an event, and he says it happens every time, and a reader approached with “a cold dead look in her eye” and said, “‘I’d be really upset if something happened to Louis and Angel.’
“If I were to die tomorrow in some tragic piano-based accident, people would be like ‘shame, but at least Lee Child has a book out later in the year’. But, if you kill off a character, people get genuinely upset and it’s very hard for writers to give characters an appropriate ending, most writers just die and the characters are left hanging there.”
In A Book of Bones Parker continues his search for the Fractured Atlas, a book so dangerous it has been dismantled and pages of it hidden in other books around the world. All the Parker books are largely set in Maine in the US, but in this one Parker leaves Maine.
“The publishers always put ‘A Charlie Parker thriller’ on the cover and I think it’s because they aren’t typical crime novels. But this one is a thriller, in the sense that thrillers roam, whereas crime novels thrive on confinement. Agatha Christie is the best example – it’s a boat, it’s a train, it’s a house – no one can leave. It’s like a hothouse.
“Thrillers require space and they need a certain kind of momentum ... It’s been 20 years and I wanted to do something odd,. I wanted to do something different. I have been reading a lot of 19th-century fiction – such as Dickens. And I like the idea of books you can lose yourself in and that have short stories embedded in them. They are embedded in the text and at the heart of A Book of Bones is the search for this Atlas.
“I liked the idea that, during the course of reading the book, readers would come across what are essentially fragments of this Atlas. Little stories related to it. If you read them, the nature and context of the book changes. I like the idea of there being two ways to read the book.”
I ask Connolly if the desire to roam, far from his usual setting of Maine, is a sign that he is leaving the country 20 years after he started writing about it. He laughs and says perhaps subconsciously he is.
“It is appallingly divided at the moment and I get a lot of correspondence from more conservative Americans who write to say they won’t read the books. They want to tell you they won’t read the books rather than just not reading them. They say they don’t pick up books to read the author’s political opinions but, actually, what they mean is that they don’t pick up books to read political opinions they don’t agree with.
“There aren’t political opinions in the books, but there are social opinions in the books. At the heart of the Private Eye genre is a conception of social justice. The origins of this genre of fiction lie in California in the 1920s. It was an incredibly corrupt state run by the railroad companies in thrall to big business. So, the justice system and the police system operated for these people with money.
“If you were poor or vulnerable the forces of law and order had no interest in you whatsoever. So, you couldn’t turn to the police or your local politician. So, you turned to this character who was outside the system. Those early Private Eye genre writers all wrote Westerns; it gradually starts to blur into this character who, instead of wearing a cowboy hat, wears a trilby, or whatever it might be, a fedora or a raincoat.
“As Victor Hugo said the people without bread are always right and these characters are always on the side of the people without bread. So, if you want to read a book in which an individual serves the interests of the wealthy and the powerful – don’t read the Private Eye genre.
“What I find most baffling is when did kindness become a political issue? When did tolerance become a political issue?”
Parker is the ultimate avenging angel – complete with a view into what Connolly describes as the honeycomb world, which is where the spirits who visit Parker – the spirits of his dead daughter and others – come from. He wreaks vengeance for those who can’t and this thrilling chase won’t disappoint.
Of The Dirty South, which he’s finishing off for release early next year, he says that going back to before Every Dead Thing gives him “a chance to draw a breath and work out, ‘well, where do I go from here?’ as I enter my sixth decade?
“What is really difficult about doing a prequel is that it becomes like a historical novel. And a historical novel with a setting that I have no direct knowledge of. I mean I could have a go at a historical novel set in Dublin, because I grew up there in the 1970s, but to write one set in another part of the world is really difficult.
John Connolly, the creator of Charlie Parker, one of the best known characters in contemporary crime fiction
“You have to find people who have those memories and insights to put into the book and it becomes tricky because there are things you don’t know that you don’t know. You rely on stealing from other people and you pick from their memories. Usually, if you ask people, they are quite happy to help you. Most people if you sit them down want to tell you the story.”
There are rumblings that Charlie Parker might come to TV. I ask him about this, as for years he’s been resolute about not putting Parker on screen.
“I was resistant to film because I thought the compression of a four or five hundred word book into a 90-minute film is always unsatisfying. But TV has changed the way these sorts of narratives can be treated.”
He’s not sure it will happen, but he’s read the script and knows it’s being shopped around, so it’s a maybe. However, he’s carved out a few months at the end of this year to write the script himself for the film adaptation of his children’s book, The Book of Lost Things, so he says in the case of that project, it’s a “definitely maybe” that it comes to the screen.
I ask him who might play Charlie Parker, but he’s not playing that game, especially as he points out – does anyone really know what Parker looks like? He says he doesn’t.
“Most writers tend to create characters who are like them – only slightly better looking, taller, younger and more witty,” he says, joking.
He says everyone has their own idea of what Parker is like – and has an opinion. He uses the example of Lee Child’s protagonist, the extra-size protagonist, Jack Reacher, who was played by the pint-size Tom Cruise in the films – and how Child deals with fans’ indignation.
“I sat beside Lee at this book signing, alphabetically I was next to him and Michael Connelly, and every person who came up to him said ‘Lee, Tom Cruise? Really?’
“And he had the same answer every time: ‘You know, Reacher’s size was only ever a metaphor.’
“I thought, ‘You lying sod’, as he counted his money, and went ha ha ha’,” says Connolly, laughing again.
Connolly’s taken the same advice – if you have sold something you keep your mouth shut or bite your tongue, and “look at what you’ve bought with our money”.
While his attitude to Parker’s screen debut has changed, his writing process has not. “I don’t know the plot. I know the opening. I sit down and write the first 1 000 or 2 000 words, after that I know the next 1 000 words. It’s a difficult way to write because it means you have to write quite slowly. You build it step by step and you discover the book in the process of writing it.”
What he is happy to see increasingly changed – and his books helped to change it – is more novels that mash up genres. Connolly laughs about this, saying that those who “criticised me for mixing genres were quite old and are already dying.
“The great revenge is to outlive your critics.”
- A Book of Bones, published by Jonathan Ball, is R229 at takealot.com