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Every Dead Thing: Urban fantasy or whodunit?

6 April 2019

Every Dead Thing (Charlie Parker, #1)Every Dead Thing by John Connolly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first in a long series of books by John Connolly featuring private detective Charlie “Bird” Parker, his ex-assassin bodyguards Angel and Louis, a psychologist, Rachel Wolfe, who does criminal profiling for the New York police, and his former New York Police Department colleague Walter Cole.

Though it is the first in the series, it is the third one I’ve read, for reasons explained more fully here. I read the second in the series first, about 20 years ago, then the eleventh, and came back to the first to try to make sense of what I found in the other books. I strongly recommend to anyone reading this series that you begin with this one, as the later books frequently refer to events that took place in this one.

What grabbed my interest in reading more of the series was that The Wrath of Angels had an element of supernatural horror that was not noticeably present in the first book I had read, and it seemed that John Connolly was developing in the opposite direction to Phil Rickman, who started out as a writer of supernatural horror with books like Crybbe and Candlenight and ended up writing more conventional whodunits.

But reading the first book in the series proved that hypothesis wrong. The supernatural horror element is present in this one from the start.

In Every Dead Thing Charlie Parker leaves the New York police force after his wife and child are killed, and becomes a private detective. It is really two books in one. In the first part he is asked to search for a missing woman from a small town in Virginia, and comes across a serial killer. In the second part he is looking for a serial killer in Louisiana, one whom he also believes to have been responsible for the death of his wife and daughter, who is known as the Travelling [sic] Man.

John Connolly is Irish, and the books are written in British English, and published in England. The villain is the Travelling Man, not the Traveling Man, and Connolly uses the British “towards” rather than the American “toward”. It made me wonder if there were American editions of the books, and whether they had been adapted to US English.

I read a library copy, and it had been edited and annotated by another library patron, something that I find rather irritating, though I had to agree with one comment: Too much blood, too many corpses. There is also rather a strong element of organised crime in the book, and while I enjoy reading whodunits and police procedurals, I’m not very fond of the “Godfather” type of story with organised crime families. This book has two sets of rival gangs, one in New York and one in New Orleans.

What kept me reading, and kept my interest, was my curiosity about the element of supernatural horror, which edges the book (and the series) into the urban fantasy genre. I became interested in that genre mainly through the works of Charles Williams and I’m always looking for similar books and even tried to write one.

I found the element of supernatural horror present in the first book of the series, which abolishes my Phil Rickman hypothesis. It’s right there on page 121 in the edition I read, where Charlie Parker gets a phone call from someone who claims to be the killer of his wife and child, and there is the following conversation:

“You’re a sick man, but that isn’t going to save you.” I pressed Caller ID on the phone and a number came up, a number I recognised. It was the number of the call-box at the end of the street. I moved towards the door and began making my way down the stairs.

“No, not man. In her final moments your wife knew that, your Susan, mouth to mouth’s kiss, as I drew the life from her. Oh, I lusted for her in those last, bright-red minutes but, then, that has always been a weakness of our kind. Our sin was not pride, but lust for humanity. And I chose her, Mr Parker, and I loved her in my way.” The voice was now deep and male. It boomed in my ear like the voice of a god, or a devil.

My question was answered by “not man” and “our kind”.

The enemies detective Charlie Parker is up against in the first book, and apparently in the rest of the series, are more than flesh and blood, but are demons, or at least demonised human beings.

The trouble is that, in contrast with the books of Charles Williams, the weapons of his warfare are very carnal indeed.

View all my reviews

The above is based on my review at GoodReads, but I’ve added some theological comments and thoughts on the urban fantasy genre generally.

As I mentioned above, what interested me about the series in general, and this book in particular, was the mythological dimension and the way Connolly handles it. I don’t think he handles it very well. In addition to the “our kind” reference, there is specific mention of the Book of Enoch. about which I have had more to say in another review here: Angels, demons and egregores.

In Every Dead Thing the Book of Enoch is mentioned as a possible source for the killer’s thinking of himself as a demon or a fallen angel, and at that point of the story is part of the criminal profiling work of Rachel Wolfe. The distinction would be between a human criminal who thinks of himself as a fallen angel, and one who is actually demonised. It is clear from The Wrath of Angels that the enemies that Charlie Parker is battling are the latter rather than the former. They are more than mere flesh and blood.

This is what makes the theme of Connolly’s novels similar to those of Charles Williams. But Connolly’s handling of the theme is very different, and in my view inferior, to that of Williams. In 2 Corinthians 10:2-7 St Paul writes that “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal”, but in Connolly’s books they are very carnal indeed, and he describes in great detail the make and model of every firearm used.

C.S. Lewis, in Perelandra, acknowledges that sometimes carnal weapons may need to be used in spiritual warfare, as the protagonist Ransom pursues the demonised villain Weston into a tunnel in the only fixed land on the planet. But Connolly somehow fails to integrate the carnal and spiritual elements in his stories. His spiritual evil is far too materialistic. It reminds me of the novels of Frank Peretti, who also depicts spiritual evil in very materialistic terms, and thus gets the balance wrong.

So I’m again thrown back on the conversation between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien: if we want more of the kind of stories we like, we shall have to write them ourselves.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. dalejamesnelson permalink
    10 April 2019 6:46 pm

    “So I’m again thrown back on the conversation between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien: if we want more of the kind of stories we like, we shall have to write them ourselves.”

    It would be good to publicize such stories when they do exist.

    I think my friend Lars Walker is writing in the Inklings tradition although he is certainly his own man. His great theme is twofold, the Christianization of Norway a thousand years ago, and the dechristianization of the West in our own time and the near future. The former is conveyed is five novels comprising what we have, so far, of the saga of Erling Skjalgsson (an historical person, by the way): The Year of the Warrior (which is two books in one: Erling’s Word and The Ghost of the God-Tree); West Oversea; Hailstone Mountain; The Elder King. The latter is conveyed in Wolf Time (which ought to be read by anyone who likes That Hideous Strength though it is NOT an imitation thereof); Blood and Judgment; Death’s Doors. There’s also a more “personal” book well worth reading, Troll Valley. Walker’s very real expertise in regard to the Viking era is evident in many of these, and they all are founded upon his Christian commitment although none of them is awkwardly evangelistic.

    There was a novel in the manner of Charles Williams about 35 years ago called Night of the Wolf, by Christopher Bryan, pretty fairly reviewed here:

    https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/christopher-bryan/night-of-the-wolf-2/

    Some of Russell Kirk’s stories might appeal to some readers of Charles Williams. I confess I found myself unable to persevere with Lord of the Hollow Dark; it just didn’t hold my interest. But some of the stories in the Eerdmans collection Ancestral Voices are pretty good entertainment.

    I’d like to send you a complimentary copy of my own story collection, Lady Stanhope’s Manuscript and Other Stories, and if you would review it — honestly of course — I would be glad. At the Claremont Review of Books, John J. Miller kindly wrote, “His appreciation of the old-fashioned ghost story and his own Christian faith combine on these pages to deliver my favorite new book of 2018, … In the future, stories such as “Rusalka” and the title piece may find their way into anthologies of the best ghostly literature, alongside the work of Le Fanu and James, plus Robert Aickman, Russell Kirk, and just a few others.”

    https://www.claremont.org/crb/basicpage/the-2018-crb-christmas-reading-list/

    There’s a link to Miller’s podcast conversation, at National Review’s Bookmonger site, with me there.

    Is the POB 7648 snail mail address correct?

    Dale Nelson

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