Filler content with black angels

Here’s a review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #42:-

THE BLACK ANGEL by JOHN CONNOLLY

Hodder & Stoughton hb, 466pp, £14.99

Connolly’s fifth book about ex-cop turned private eye Charlie Parker, moves the story along and throws new light on much of what has gone before, finally bringing to the forefront the supernatural elements that have increasingly become part of the general design.

A prostitute called Alice Temple is taken from the streets of New York, an occurrence that’s pretty much business as usual for the Big Apple’s vulnerable underclass and in the normal course of events her absence would go unnoticed and unmourned, but this girl is related by blood to Parker’s friend and ally the contract killer Louis, and he is willing to tear the city apart to find her. The search leads Parker, Louis and boyfriend Angel into a world of art collectors with an unhealthy interest in arcane objects and artisans who fashion their work from human bones. They learn of the legend of the Black Angel, supposedly one of the Fallen, imprisoned in a silver statue by the Abbot of Sedlec monastery in Czechoslovakia and hidden for more than five hundred years. And this in turn brings the trio into conflict with the Believers, a ruthless group of men and women who think they are Fallen Angels wrapped in human bodies. The Believers are assembling the clues that will lead them to the Black Angel, regarded by their leader as a lost brother, and Alice had the bad luck to cross their path. With various wealthy collectors also involved and the Catholic Church taking a hand, the stage is set for the final showdown with the Believers at Sedlec and the revelation of the Black Angel’s true nature.

So, the big question first. After Bad Men and Nocturnes is John Connolly, with this novel, finally out of the closet and revealed as a Horror writer, something a lot of us have suspected all along regardless of the Shamus Award and the Crime genre marketing? My answer would be a qualified yes. The supernatural elements are simply too pervasive to be written off as delusion, despite the author’s (force of habit) attempts to hedge his bets and retain some ambiguity about what’s going down. All the same, regardless of the fact that much of the book is set in Maine, The Black Angel shouldn’t be reduced to something as simple as Connolly does Stephen King with a PI. If you need a classification, then thriller with a horror twist, similar though far superior to the kind of thing people like Daniel Easterman produce, is the best way to go.

The next question is whether the supernatural element enhances the story, and on that score I’m not really convinced that it does. Part of the appeal of previous novels like The White Road is that they dealt with very real concerns, such as racism and bigotry, which gave the books a moral authority elevating them above mere thrillers. With human wrongdoing displaced by some purer distillation of evil, I can’t help feeling that’s been weakened, as if by doing so Connolly has given mankind a get out of gaol free card as regards culpability. The change also necessitates a quantum shift in our understanding of Parker himself, details of which I can’t reveal without going the route of plot spoiler, except to say that the character moves closer to that of, say, John Constantine, and it’s too early to judge whether this is a good thing or not, though those who had difficulty in the past with Parker’s occasional psychic flashes may find his new incarnation even harder to swallow.

Okay, enough of the quibbling and attempting to second guess how many angels can dance on the head of John Connolly’s mouse. If not quite of a quality with The White Road, my personal favourite in the series so far, this latest book is every bit as entertaining as its predecessors, with a complex and compelling story, one that stretches back into the distant past and in the present day takes the form of an intriguing jigsaw puzzle which Parker and his companions must piece together. Plotting has always been one of this writer’s great strengths, and here it’s seen to full advantage, with a story that in the abstract may seem far fetched, preposterous even, but when given concrete form, fleshed out with a wealth of incidental detail and episodes carefully calculated to bolster the great narrative arc, is never less than riveting and holds the attention completely.

Larger than life villains are another vital ingredient in the mix that makes Connolly’s work so appealing – Faulkner, Kittim, The Golem, Mr Pudd – and once again he doesn’t disappoint, with a cast of memorable bad guys, from pimp with attitude G-Mack through to ‘art’ dealer Neddo, Mexican killer Garcia and the beautiful but deadly Hope Zahn. The outstanding character though is the monstrously obese and ruthless Brightwell, a conscienceless killer who takes a personal interest in Parker. Fans of classic crime, alerted by the McGuffin of a statue that is more than it appears to be, will no doubt make the connection with The Maltese Falcon and wonder if Brightwell’s creation was part inspired by Gutman, but Parker’s latest nemesis brings with him a dimension of horror that is all his own and guaranteed to repel the reader even as it delights.

And in Parker himself the bigger drama is given a truly human face, that of a man who must choose between, on the one hand, doing what he thinks is right and helping those who cannot help themselves except for his intervention, and on the other, looking out for the people he loves, as happens here with the alienation of his girl friend’s affections and the way in which his actions place the family unit at risk. Parker is the paradigm anti-hero, his moral authority underwritten by the sacrifices he makes and the defining quality of compassion that shines through in his dealings with others, though to the world at large he appears as the eye of the storm, the focus for all the madness and violence that’s found in these books. Ultimately he’s just an ordinary man tempered in the fires of personal tragedy and who cares just a little too much, and that is what makes us care about him.

And if none of that convinces you to buy The Black Angel I should also mention, by way of a clincher, that it contains one of the funniest duck jokes I have ever heard.

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