A Game Of Ghosts: Live, die, repeat

GhostsIf you’re enjoying something immensely, why would you ever want it to stop? That’s the nub of John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series of supernatural crime-thrillers. The author and his audience certainly seem to relish Charlie’s annual appearance in which he confronts the latest cult of ancient evil to come crawling out of the undergrowth. But like all the best series, the Parker saga is being told in slow time and the overall arc creeps forward infinitesimally with each episode. Much like the X-Files, which has so far taken ten seasons to explain exactly nothing while bringing Mulder and Scully in a long looping U-turn, Connolly delivers a self-contained good vs evil narrative in each book… while dropping huge great hints at what’s really going on with Parker’s mission, his cohorts, and his increasingly intimidating, otherworldly daughter.

It’s a tough trick, doing ‘the same but different’ every time, but in ‘Ghosts’ Connolly exerts his considerable wordsmithing skills to ace it. With the previous, fourteenth, novel in the series, I grumbled on about him needing a new story to tell: this time around I just indulged myself. So what if we’ve read most of it before? We keep coming back for more. Well, I do.

In fact, ‘Ghosts’ does some sneakily sophisticated things which can be obscured by the page-turning pace of the plot. It delivers the comfortable familiarity of a cracking cast of characters, offset by the unsettling strangeness which has become keynote of this series. It explores the gruesome violence of sinister religions, the insidious evil which hides in small-town society, bakes cakes on Saturday, attends church on Sunday, and mass murders on Monday. Simultaneously, Connolly provides a social commentary about the tricky business of marital divorce and disputed child custody. It’s far from straightforward when the child involved sees dead people…

He’s also a dab hand with dialogue. There’s a splendid scene in a diner featuring detective Charlie, hitman Louis and his scruffy, loveable and lethal partner, Angel. The situation is perfectly observed and adroitly delivered: Angel has a medical ‘something’ but is deeply in denial. The waitress rewards his procrastination with a perfectly-timed verbal jab. It’s a subtle snapshot of human empathy, full of warmth, humour and stark mortality, deftly smuggled into the subtext of genre fiction.

So: to the whole spookynatural thing. The Charlie Parker stories started out as private investigations with a hint of oddness. Now the weird schtick is front and central. You can still indulge in some cognitive dissonance, and tell yourself that the echoes from the past and perceptions of an afterlife are simply the sheen that the characters’ cast on strange events. The paranormal aspects are just explanations for why bad people do bad things. It’s all interpretation. Charlie’s daughter isn’t really some kind of demon queen in training. You can tell yourself that. If you like.

If you’re new to John Connolly and don’t like deviations into the unexplained then you should probably starts back at the beginning of the Charlie Parker series – see if you like the cut of his jib before things wander into the twilight zone. Similarly, those readers who want more old-fashioned detecting and less evil incarnate are likely to be frustrated by the obvious aspects of the uncanny ‘Ghosts.’ Can I suggest you try Steve Hamilton, Giles Blunt, John Sandford or Stephen Hunter instead?

Me, I’m wondering which tribal god is next up to bat…

9/10

Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason

A Game Of Ghosts by John Connolly is available in multiple formats

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