If you’ve never read any of the Charlie Parker books before then this is a great place to start. Never mind that it appears to be the umpteenth in the series; it might be the new-for-2020 story but it’s set back in the mists of time, in the late 1990s, shortly after the murderous events which originally untethered Parker from the moral code of most lawmen. So it’s perfect if you’re a total stranger to the series.
For me, as a committed reader whose followed Parker’s progression since ‘Every Dead Thing’, this one was surprisingly hard to get in to. All the usual touchstones are gone. No bar, no Fulci brothers wreaking well-intentioned havoc, no ancient evil lying under a rock in a sleepy New England village. No secret societies playing a deadly chess game with the souls of civilisation. No mystic relics or grisly grimoire; no hairpin bends into the uncanny. No dead daughter delivering dark foreboding to her live counterpart.
In short, this book has few of the things which typically make up a Charlie Parker story. And that took me a little bit of getting used to. It means that the new characters we meet in Corrupt County, Arkansas aren’t incidental to this story. They are this story. And it’s much more of a traditional PI investigation than Connolly has written of late. This is as close to a procedural investigation as Charlie Parker is ever likely to scrutinise.
Effectively, Charlie is the incidental character in the narrative. The story is somewhat about him, when seen from certain angles. But it’s much more like the plot of a Dave Robicheaux novel by James Lee Burke – of moral and political corruption and murderous outrage in a small southern community, where a long-established family has a deathgrip on the reins of power. There are a few honest lawmen in town, but most of the county is on the family’s poisonous payroll.
Big money seems to be on the horizon; a huge government contractor might be about to roll into town, buying land, building plant, bringing affluence. The family will do anything to make this happen. And someone will do anything to stop it. And that ‘anything’ includes killing young black women in a gruesome manner, dragging the whole county into ill repute and keeping its people as dirt poor as they’ve ever been.
Into this comes Charlie, seeking the killer of his own loved ones. He rapidly realises that this unsub isn’t his man… but isn’t averse to helping out when the locals draft him as a deputy. And so we watch the tangled mystery unfold through multiple viewpoints; not just Charlie’s perspective, but that of the meth-cooking lowlife who may not be the ultimate villain; and the corporate enforcers who probably are, and the tainted priest who flesh is indeed weak. All of this, and appalling coffee served in scuzzy diners, too.
The Dirty South is most definitely a side-step in this series. It’s a straight-up serial killer hunt with few of the touchstones that typify recent Charlie Parker mysteries. But it’s also lighter, somehow (although the subject matter is hardly frothy fluffy cuddly bunnies), and an easier read than last year’s A Book Of Bones. It’s almost a relief to be dealing with earthly evil and bad guys who can quite satisfyingly be crushed to the bone in a bear trap (oops, sorry, spoiler!), rather than the impending doom of all humanity if ancient awfulness escapes from a hidden building that doesn’t quite exist in our reality.
In short, then, this was a cracking crime-thriller. Like I said, the perfect place to start if you’re wondering what all the fuss is about.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Dirty South by John Connolly is available at Amazon
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Meet the Killing Sisters in A Last Act Of Charity at Amazon