Master of a gripping tale

John Connolly was in Durban to promote his latest Charlie Parker thriller, A Song of Shadows. I caught up with him to discuss her favourite detective series

 John Connolly is born and bred Irish, and it’s still home – even though he lives in the US. My first question then was: why is the Charlie Parker series set in North America?

It goes back to what he read as a child – children’s mystery and supernatural fiction.

“Supernatural fiction is a way of letting young people know how dark the world can be. There are things in this world that are confusing and conflicted. Horror fiction allows a reader to explore fear and put a name to frightening things,” he explains.

It made sense then “to create a hybrid of these two genres because I loved them both”, Connolly says.

Post-independence, Irish literature has become consumed with exploring what it is to be Irish, with the result that genre fiction is considered frivolous and not worthy.

“An Irish writer is expected to write about Ireland and Irishness, and I did not want to do that. Irish literature did not include crime fiction. And I love the supernatural. I had to write about what I loved.”

Despite living in the US and being exposed to a plethora of US mystery fiction, Connolly brings to the genre a set of unique cultural sensibilities that are set in the European traditions of storytelling and folktales.

“For all my trying to run away from it, I cannot escape my Irishness,” he quips.

“My fascination with mythology, fairy tales and folklore are Irish and European. I don’t write like an American and I don’t want to,” he admits.

I think it’s precisely this European sensibility in his writing that sets the Charlie Parker series head and shoulders above the rest for me. Connolly is a master at telling a good tale, while at the same time encouraging his readers to ask deep social questions.

A Song of Shadows does just that. Taking the reader back to World War II and the crimes committed in Adolf Hitler’s notorious death camps, the author is able to masterfully tell a gripping mystery tale that also gets one thinking about and interrogating how past atrocities never really disappear, as well as how much we can still learn from them decades later.

If you read the last Charlie Parker installation, you would know that the generally invincible detective was involved in an epic battle for his life and readers were left with a deep sense of unease about him even surviving.

In A Song of Shadows, Parker makes his appearance, but he is a shell of his former self. The third person narration that Connolly adopts in this book creates a sense of uneasy distance between Parker and the reader – a deliberate literary technique to emphasise how changed he is.

Parker is in need of solitude and tranquillity – a place to recuperate and regroup. And so he finds himself in an isolated beach cottage on a lonely beach in Maine.

Mom

His neighbour is the mysterious single mom, Ruth Winter, who is living in the only other house on the beach with her daughter. Ruth has a story that intrigues him – she has left the comfort of her mother’s home and support in a neighbouring community, to take up residence on an isolated beach.

Soon Parker finds himself sucked into another tale of evil and mystery in this sleepy town that is inhabited mostly by genial-looking elderly folk of German heritage.

But these old folk hold secrets that go back to the concentration camps of World War II. This small community of mostly old men have managed to stay under the radar – not divulging the truth about the parts they played in Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

But as they become more and more frail, there are some who are concerned that the truth will come out. The subject matter for A Song of Shadows is not typical crime thriller stuff, and it is another reason I am so drawn to the Charlie Parker series – there is always a surprise that keeps us readers on our toes.

While watching television, Connolly’s attention was drawn to a frail, old man – dressed in a prisoner’s outfit – being led up a court’s steps in America. “I was curious about what he had done – he looked so old, so frail,” he says.

His interest piqued, Connolly read more about him.

“The man’s name was Hans Breyer. He had been a guard at Auschwitz and America was attempting to extradite him in order for him to answer for his crimes.”

But, the night before he was to be extradited, Breyer died. “He escaped justice at the very last minute.”

As he mulled over this story, Connolly began questioning his belief that the Nuremberg Trials had created the net necessary to capture all perpetrators. It led him to thinking about what had been written about Nazi Germany and the subsequent justice meted out.

There are reams of literature written about and by the survivors or victims. “But there is little written about or by those who committed the crimes,” he says.

“Soon there will be no survivors and the few perpetrators that escaped the net will also be dead.”

Determined to bring the remaining few criminals to book, there is a renewed zeal in the US to track them down and extradite them.

But Connolly strongly believes that people are not inherently evil.

“People can justify anything to themselves to allow themselves to do it – no matter how appalling the thing is,” he explains.

As a writer, Connolly believes one has to have a degree of compassion and empathy for even the worst characters in a book. “You put a bit of yourself into them,” he says.

In writing A Song of Shadows, Connolly attempts to get the reader to understand the old German men who have been living in isolation for so many decades.

“We should understand why they feel the way they do. And maybe the reader will come to the conclusion that after all these years, they should be left in peace.”

A Song of Shadows delves into the themes of justice and compassion – themes that are inherent to most mystery fiction.

“Readers see what they are reading as entertainment. But as a writer, you can slip in thoughts or ideas under the wire. You can explore themes that don’t come across as preachy.

“A reader of mystery fiction may not read a book about Nazi Germany. But that reader will read a book like this where the subject is broached. I can only hope that as they go along with the story, it gets them to think and analyse.”

Love

“The thing about mystery fiction is that while it is pure entertainment on one level, it can also elicit discussion on themes like compassion, empathy and justice.”

Connolly’s love for supernatural fiction is becoming more evident in the Charlie Parker novels, too.

First, it was Parker talking to his dead wife. Now his living daughter, Sam, has begun communicating with her dead sister.

“Mystery novels and supernatural novels are very much about the same thing. They just approach the subject from different angles,” he says.

“Both are about what happens when chaos intrudes into a life.

“Mystery novels take their cue from a murder or crime. It is that event that will change a life forever.

“Exactly the same thing happens in a supernatural novel, but the chaos is caused by something that is not human.”

There are many reasons a Charlie Parker novel is exciting and enthralling.

After meeting the man behind these novels I have a better understanding of why.

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About Meneesha

Online and books editor by day, mum even while I sleep, individual all the time. I live in the beautiful city of Durban - the unpolished gem in South Africa. If I didn't have a family, I'd be that crazy cat lady your mum probably warned you not to feed! Blogging is where I share, vent, rant, laugh and generally be myself. Join the ride!

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