Since Thomas Harris sort of created the serial killer novel with Silence of the Lambs back in 1988, readers have been inundated with many, many people hopping the bandwagon to fame. And like Tolkien and Grisham, who both are credited for creating a popular genre, the many books that have been released in those categories go from badly written (James Patterson) to gruesome, yet well written literature (Gillian Flynn, Stephen King) thrillers.
The reason I picked up John Connolly's Every Dead Thing was I just finished his young-adult series featuring Samuel Johnson and his trusty dog Boswell as they battled demons trying to kill him and take over Earth. And wanted to see what his adult fiction was like.
And to be honest, I was rather turned off at first. Part of it was violence, something I have a huge issue with, and the detailed description of what serial killers do. While the profiler's who deal with these folks need to see all the details, I sometimes feel as a reader, the authors take too much joy in describing the butchery. And in Connolly’s debut here, death appears on almost every page and it’s like watching a Quentin Tarantino movie where all the deaths are shown and all accompanying story aspects have been excised. But eventually I got caught up in the story.
We meet Charlie “Bird” Parker, a former NYPD Detective, who is searching for the killer of his wife and young daughter. Parker is filled with guilt as the night of the killing, he had had a fight with his wife (police work was talking its toll on him and their marriage, and he was on the verge of becoming a full alcoholic) and had ventured to a bar to hide the pain. What comes clear after he discovers their bodies is that his wife Susan and his daughter Jennifer were victims of serial killer - their faces removed and their mutilated bodies arranged in a position that (Parker would later discover) is meant to mimic Estienne's Pieta.
But months later, Parker in no closer to solving the crime, though he has made contact with Tante Marie Aguillard, a New Orleans mystic who tells him the killer, whom she calls the Traveling Man, has struck before, and has buried a previous victim in the bayou near her home. And while many –including some of Parker’s former police officers –don’t think he should get his hopes up, he believes her. Still, frustrated, he is given a missing persons case by an old police friend. Catherine Demeter is the girlfriend of a wealthy Manhattan socialite, and his leads eventually bring him to the small town of Haven, Virginia, where (predictably) his outsider status and insistent questions open wounds long thought closed.
As he comes closer to solving that case, he realizes, however tenuously, that Demeter’s disappearance and murder of his wife and child are connected. And as wheels move forward, Parker is confronted by the evil in the world and one killer who believes a nation, a world, does not understand death.
What I liked about the novel was the grasp Connolly –an Irishman who lives in Dublin- had on America. He certainly did his research and it may surprise some that he is Irish. Also, some have called his style in the vein of Ross McDonald, Andrew Vachss and Thomas Harris, in which we meet mean, unapologetic people (both good and bad) who represent a side of America most generally never see, but understand exist.
Still, Connolly does not stray too much from the typical expectations of private eyes in this genre, as Parker is sullen, often depressed, but, even so, is always ready with a witty comeback (which was shown in the Samuel Johnson books; Connolly is pretty funny). And even though he trudges into the same area that James Lee Burke made famous, New Olreans (and a witty, throwaway line about Ann Rice), Connolly makes this thriller his own.
And while I could do less with deep description of death (and it’s cheapness of life his characters seem to subscribe to) his closest allies are two tough, black gay men. Which is, for me anyways, interesting. There are many more novels featuring Parker out there, and I may, from time to time, pick one up. He’s a good writer, and Every Dead Thing is more literate than most in this genre, so we’ll see.