(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Reviewers compared John Connolly’s novels to those of Stephen King and Thomas Harris in his use of the supernatural and his emphasis on deranged killers. However, in Connolly’s treatment, it is history, personal and collective, that receives the primary emphasis. History influences and often overwhelms his characters. History not only contributes to present thought and attitudes but also intrudes in a more tangible manner: Connolly’s hero Charlie Parker must deal with the actual, if shadowy, appearances of the dead and the presence of diabolical “black angels” who have fallen from heaven and maim, torture, and kill humans to spite God. In The White Road Connolly writes that people, by their actions in this life, make their own hell in which to exist in the afterlife. Conversely, doing a good deed can atone for some past evil. Most important is Connolly’s conception of evil itself: the absence of empathy. That is, people commit evil when they treat others merely as objects.

From this moral metaphysics come Connolly’s three main themes: compassion, atonement, and salvation. Although these may sound like religious goals, for Parker they have a practical importance and numinous consequences that Connolly does not connect to any faith or organization. (Connolly’s research draws freely from Christian, Judaic, animistic, and Manichean beliefs.) Every Dead Thing opens with Parker drinking away his frustrations with life and work as a New York City homicide detective while his wife and daughter are being tortured and murdered at home. He discovers the bodies and initially is the prime suspect. This personal history haunts him through the novel as he frees himself from suspicion and then sets off on a quest to track down the murderer, a sadist known as the Traveler. In later novels, family history likewise presses on him: For example, his father, also a New York City police officer, killed a woman and child under mysterious circumstances before taking his own life. Moreover, there is a darkness to each generation of his family that he has inherited. Through The Killing Kind (2001) and The White Road, it becomes clear that an unimaginably greater history plagues him: He is himself a fallen angel, a status made explicit in The Black Angel. He is among twenty former angels doomed to roam among humans, trapped in human form forever unless their bodies are destroyed by violence, in which case they are reborn into a new body.

Nineteen of these angels hunt and kill people, for various reasons, and from their number come the most villainous of Connolly’s antagonists, such as Kittim, Reverend Faulkner, and Brightwell. Alone among the black angels, Parker feels compassion for the vulnerable and victimized. The compassion derives from his private and family history; an additional motivation, beginning in The Black Angel, is his desire to atone for his original sin against God. He therefore fights the bad angels, an unremitting moral war that has lasted, Connolly intimates, through many incarnations. The novels give little indication that Parker’s crusade will win him personal forgiveness from God. Salvation, Connolly hints, is the active pursuit of justice rather than a reward for a good life.

Parker’s life cannot be described as good in any conventional moral or religious sense. Working as a private investigator, he is loyal and ethical to clients and friends but frequently ignores all else—laws, customs, judicial procedures, and common morality. In pursuit of a culprit, he regularly kills, both in self-defense and to ensure that villains do not escape. Connolly’s novels place little faith in the judicial system or police, assuming that red tape and corruption cripples these institutions in the face of evil. Moreover, Parker’s helpers are frequently as criminal and violent as are his nemeses. These include an array of Mafiosi and former convicts, but the most outstanding are Louis and Angel, a biracial gay couple who...

(The entire section is 1639 words.)