Every Dead Thing

by John Connolly

Published by Simon and Schuster

400 pages, 1999

 


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The Big Queasy

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce

 

For a first-time novelist, John Connolly has certainly received a heap of hype and money. His British publisher, Hodder and Stoughton, reportedly paid the Irish writer a whopping £350,000 for both his new serial-killer thriller Every Dead Thing (released earlier this year in England) and a sequel, tentatively titled Dark Hollow. Simon and Schuster then ponied up another $1 million for American rights to the debut book. London's Sunday Times has already chosen Connolly as one of the four most promising new talents of 1999. Critics compare his new work favorably with Thomas Harris' Silence of the Lambs, and odds are good that Every Dead Thing will at least be in the running for crime fiction awards on both sides of the Atlantic in 2000.

Yet, for all its sharp prose and well-realized characters, this novel is not easy to read. Or recommend. There were times when, in the depths of a passage filled with graphic gore, I wanted more than anything else to chuck Connolly's work against a distant wall, to abandon it in favor of something more pleasant and less rampant with cynicism and malevolence. (In fact, I read three other books in the course of finishing this one, just to save myself from being mired in the author's grim psychopathology.) Every Dead Thing is a tale packed with corpses and guilt; obsession and insane artistry. "A descent into Hell," as Connolly himself puts it. He can say that again.

The plot concentrates around Charlie "Bird" Parker, a former New York City police detective who's torn up inside because, two years ago, his wife Susan and their 3-year-old daughter Jennifer were murdered and dissected (their faces cut away and stolen) while he was in a bar getting shit-faced. Now he's on the wagon and on the trail of any clues that will reveal the identity of his family's killer.

Meanwhile, he takes on private investigations. Such as his search in the first half of this particular story for Catherine Demeter, the unhappy nominal girlfriend of Stephen Barton, an aeronautics industry heir and "minor drug pusher." It seems she has disappeared, and Barton's stepmother Isobel, who had grown fond of Catherine, wants Parker to locate her. When a search through the missing woman's Brooklyn digs points him toward rural Virginia for answers, it sounds like a healthy escape for Parker from his quotidian milieu of hoods and hitmen and terminally downbeat cops. But digging into Catherine's history only leads him to unearth more tragedy: the murder of Demeter's elder sister, old hostilities in a dying small town, child killings that span 30 years... and an unexpected connection to his own family's destroyer, a monster Parker has come to know as the Traveling Man. A monster who, for some reason, has recently begun to taunt the detective with phone calls and gruesome gifts. About a quarter of the way through the book, Parker unwraps one such package:

The surface of the jar was clean and I smelled the disinfectant he had used to erase any traces of himself. In the yellowing liquid it contained I saw my own face doubly reflected, first on the surface of the glass and then, inside, on the face of my once-beautiful daughter. It rested gently against the side of the jar, now bleached and puffy like the face of a drowning victim, scraps of flesh like tendrils rising from the edges and the eyelids closed as if in repose. And I moaned in a rising tide of agony and fear, hatred and remorse.

Now do you understand my difficulty in staying with this book? And the going doesn't get any easier from there on. Goaded along by the spirit voice of a dead black psychic, and accompanied by a lovely criminal psychologist named Rachel Wolfe as well as a pair of dangerous but constantly bickering gay henchmen, Bird Parker chases the Traveling Man to sensual New Orleans and deep into the humid heart of Louisiana bayou country. He winds up in the middle of a no-holds-barred gang war, has to duck bullets at a funeral, and ultimately risks a friend's life -- all in order to learn the complex meaning of the Traveling Man's heinous acts and realize his peculiar symbiotic relationship with the killer.

Every Dead Thing (the title taken from a John Donne poem) is one of those books that's hard to like, but easy to admire for its deft prose stylings, expert scene settings, and author Connolly's seamless way of blending in arcane but fascinating commentary about cannibalistic cultures, the behavior of hyenas, and even the logical excesses of regression therapy. ("Her regression therapist has told her to sue me for injuries in a past life," a cop friend tells Parker, referring to a former girlfriend. "I'm about to become a test case for all those donut heads who watch a documentary on PBS and think they were once Cleopatra or William the Conqueror.")

However, it is this novel's raft of characters that should earn Connolly the greatest approbation. The psychologically wounded, but crime-wise and justice-hungry Parker has enough dimensions for two or three fictional figures. The two gay career criminals, Angel and Louis, who play sidekicks to Parker in the Big Easy are also finely sketched, though their roles in this drama are insufficiently unique. (Good guys backed up by thugs or semi-thugs -- think of Hawk in Robert B. Parker's Spenser series or Joe Pike in Robert Crais' Elvis Cole stories -- have become a cliché of modern American crime fiction.) Less satisfyingly explored is the character of Rachel Wolfe, who starts out in this yarn with the potential to be an important ally and humanizing force for Parker, but turns out to be just another pretty woman in need of masculine protection. And surprisingly, after chapter upon chapter of build-up, the Traveling Man disappoints in the end, coming off as pitiful rather than powerful, a merely demented soul.

Serial-killer stories represent a growing category of crime fiction, and a few -- such as Michael Connelly's The Concrete Blonde and Caleb Carr's The Alienist -- have served to elevate the reputation of the entire genre. Every Dead Thing doesn't measure up to either of those previous works, and the brutal aspects of its plot can be harrowing. Nonetheless, it is vastly more sure-footed than most first novels, suggesting that John Connolly's publishers weren't completely daft when they offered him those exorbitant sums for his work. We'll see what he can do with his next novel, Dark Hollow, which he has described as a less horrific, Ross Macdonaldesque tale about old crimes and the ways they continue to affect Bird Parker's family. | June 1999

J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.