The White Road
by John Connolly
Published by Atria Books
400 pages, 2003
by John Connolly
Published by Hodder & Stoughton UK
416 pages, 2003
2003 is shaping up to be a signal year for Irish crime novelist John Connolly. The White Road, his fourth entry in a darkly suspenseful series featuring cop-turned-private eye Charlie "Bird" Parker, was recently released in the United States. And his first standalone novel, Bad Men, about a "giant policeman" whose confrontation with killers on an island off the coast of Maine weirdly mirrors a historical event, should appear in British bookstores by early June. Inspired in his writing by American detective novelist Ross Macdonald, but periodically likened to Thomas Harris (Hannibal) -- thanks to his taste in serial killers -- Connolly is an uncompromising and outspoken writer who, in the words of UK anthologist/critic Mike Ashley, "combines fear and detection with the power of a tidal wave."
Born in Dublin in 1968, Connolly worked as a young adult in a series of non-directional jobs before he began studying English at Dublin's Trinity College. He subsequently earned a degree in journalism from Dublin City University, then signed on as a freelance writer for The Irish Times, a newspaper to which he still contributes from time to time. In 1999, he welcomed the publication of his first novel, Every Dead Thing. Launched into the wide wake created that year by Hannibal's appearance, and with a similarly grotesque aspect, Connolly's morally dimensioned debut mystery won comparisons -- often favorable ones. Yet the two works have little in common.
Every Dead Thing introduced us to Parker, a former New York City police detective who's torn up inside because, two years ago, his wife and their 3-year-old daughter were murdered and dissected (their faces cut away and stolen) while he was off nursing a liquor bottle. The tale starts out as a standard, if rather vicious, police procedural, but soon adopts elements of the supernatural and metaphysical as Parker seeks his quarry, an insane artist of the ghastly known as the Traveling Man. Reviews of that book divided critics, with many gushing, while others were confused by the violence and the transcendent qualities of the prose. The Los Angeles Times summed up the reader impressions nicely. "Connolly's first novel," the paper opined, "is a spellbinding book. Informed but uncluttered, it holds the reader fast in a comfortless stranglehold."
The author's sophomore work, Dark Hollow (2000), again stormed the bestseller charts. It introduced a couple of psychopathic sidekicks, Louis and Angel, into Parker's orbit as it blended a children's fairy tale about the bogeyman with the conventions of a crime/mystery thriller. British detective fictionist Mark Timlin (All the Empty Places), examining Connolly's methods for The Independent, was liberal with his praise for the novel. "Connolly's evocative prose and sharp one-liners make it oddly akin to poetry," Timlin wrote in his review. "What keeps Dark Hollow from being mere thrilling entertainment with a taste for violence is the compelling if problematic sense that moral choice is possible and necessary: that, in the face of evil, something must be done."
The idea that something must be done, and that moral choices need to be made, lies at the very heart of Charlie Parker's fictional journey. This has never been clearer than it was in Connolly's critically acclaimed third novel, The Killing Kind (published in the UK in 2001, but issued in the States last year -- in time to win a spot on January's favorite books of 2002 list.) That muscular story sends Parker to northern Maine, where he hopes to determine why an ex-girlfriend, Grace Peltier, should have committed suicide. But instead, he's sucked into a malevolent game masterminded by "mad preacher" Aaron Faulkner and the reverend's henchman, Elias Pudd. A web is spun, and soon Parker is caught in a world of religious derangement and deadly spiders. The Killing Kind again twisted genre boundaries with its gothic metaphysics, yet stayed sufficiently within the margins to earn the character of Charlie Parker a Sherlock Award.
The White Road enhances Connolly's reputation for penning fiction based on copious research. He worked his way around South Carolina in order to concoct a tale that stretches back into the Palmetto State's less-than-lustrous past, when public lynchings and burnings of African-American males were commonplace -- events to which numerous spectators would bring their children and picnic lunches. Connolly has traveled frequently to the United States over the years, and he views America from the curious, critical perspective of an outsider. In The White Road, Parker is summoned to Charleston, South Carolina, by an attorney friend who needs his help in defending a young black man accused of raping Marianne Larousse, the daughter of a wealthy white industrialist. If the P.I. fails, then the suspect will be sentenced to death. It's a case that nobody wants to touch, rooted in pernicious old evils. As the yarn unfolds, we are re-acquainted with preacher Faulkner, who leers at Parker from his cell and is planning revenge. We're also introduced to Cyrus Nairn, a hunched fiend given birth in Connolly's fevered imagination, and come to understand a bit better why cronies Louis and Angel are the men they are. The Irish Times called this book "a darkly atmospheric tale," but of course such a blurb could be applied to any of Connolly's novels.
As Connolly prepared to embark on the promotional tour for Bad Men, I visited him in Dublin. There we discussed his stumbling entry into authorhood, his interest in ghost stories and the supernatural, and his obsession with "getting my facts correct" -- even in fiction.
Ali Karim: Can you tell me a little about the baggage from your childhood, and how that has effected your writing?
John Connolly: I'm not sure that I have any baggage. I was a perfectly moody and miserable child from an ordinary middle-class family. I was born and raised in the Rialto district of Dublin, which was a rough area to be brought up in -- but nothing like South-Central L.A., I hasten to add. Any baggage that I do carry with me is stuff that I have accumulated from when I was 18 and beyond.
Were there any people who instilled in you the need to write?
I guess that my mother would factor in there, as the house was always full of books. I was fortunate, in that I had a school teacher when I was quite young that was very supportive, but I was writing anyway. Most people who write do so at an early age. ... I started writing almost as soon as I could read. It just seemed natural to see how reading and writing fitted together in those terms. I guess kids make up stories, and if someone gives you the tools to do that -- which in my case were books -- then it becomes natural. The first book I read (that I remember) was an Enid Blyton novel, and after that my school encouraged more adventurous reading.
You studied at Trinity College and Dublin City University. What was your taste of academia like?
It was good. I left school at 17, and I was 20 going onto 21 when I went to college, as I had a couple of years working. I quickly discovered that working is a vastly overrated activity, and if you can get away with doing as little as possible, then perhaps you should. It's something parents instill in their children, that they should work, and that was my father's view. I briefly wanted to be a veterinary doctor when I was 13, after reading a slew of James Herriot books. But when I discovered that that would entail spending vast amounts of your time with your hand stuck up a cow, I decided that it might be better to keep my hands clean.
So when I went to college I was very grateful for the opportunity to study and read. I had saved some money working, and cashed in my pension fund, and so I was lucky to spend four years studying English, which was something that I really wanted to do. I still had to work during those four years to support myself, so it was a hard time; but I found that I was doing something that I really enjoyed. ... In retrospect, despite being a big reader, I was not particularly well-read, in the sense that I had not read enough of the classics. There was a whole range of things that I would never have read, unless someone directed me to them -- the required reading for courses -- so in that sense, the four years were very important for me.
You often cite the differences between so-called Golden Age British crime fiction and the American crime fiction of that same period. Would you care to explain?
Are you trying to cause to trouble? [Laughs]
No. But what I'm alluding to here is that the British crime fiction of the early 20th century was very class-conscious, focusing on the mechanics of upper-class society, whereas U.S. crime fiction focused more on the blue-collar world. What are your thoughts on this difference?
Well, in most panel debates and discussion groups, when this theme is explored, people very rarely argue, as there seems to be this happy consensus about things. I think people are often frightened to offend someone, as if you can't say anything bad about people who write mysteries set in the vicarage, or cat mysteries. I am quite happy to say bad things about some of them, as some are simply awful, just as some hard-boiled mysteries are. ...
In terms of my own reading, I've read [Agatha] Christie as well as [Dorothy L.] Sayers, and they are the kind of things that you pick up in a library when you're younger. They are books about class, but more importantly, they are very conservative. These novels are predicated upon belief in "the system" and "the society" that they are set in. So crime is seen as an aberration to the system, and all it takes is someone with a bow tie, bowler hat and perhaps a fancy mustache to come in and sort it out. The hero cuts out the crime like a surgeon operating on a cancerous nodule that needs removing, restoring order to the perfect world. There are, naturally, exceptions to this, but I'm not sure that even those works were prepared to look into the fact that evil is endemic to society, part of the natural order of things.
That is not the only thing I dislike about the Golden Age "cozy." Christie may have some very good qualities, but carefully crafting characters is not one of them, apart from Miss Marple and perhaps [Hercule] Poirot and the odd guy who turns up in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which was quite interesting. That wasn't her real concern, as she was in fact writing puzzles, and she was writing books that had the ethos that "bad things happen to bad people." People who die in Christie's and Sayers' novels have been asking for it. The classic example is in Sayers' The Nine Tailors, where the guy who dies in that book dies because of divine retribution, and his death is connected to a vision of a God who only punishes bad people. Therefore, there is no need to become emotionally engaged with the people who die in those novels. ... You shouldn't give a damn about them, but perhaps focus on the puzzle that lies in the center of the book.
In the American crime novels of the same period, the situation is completely different. There is an understanding that people suffer due to no fault of their own, particularly with Ross Macdonald, who was a big influence on my own writing. There is not the same "perfect world" setting, particularly with the books that came out of California in the 1920s and 30s. [California back then] was a dreadfully corrupt place. It was a place of immense wealth, and with that came power, and that brought the law, and with that, justice was predicated upon how much money you had. In that environment, you needed someone from the outside to establish order, because the police were not going to do it -- especially if you were poor, or an immigrant. ... I think that [situation] appealed to me, because it brings a great deal of other things into the frame. There is a sense of indignation at the state of the world, and also of compassion; there is recognition that for evil to triumph, as the political philosopher Edmund Burke said, [all that is necessary is] for good men to stand by and do nothing. There was an understanding in that fiction, that you just had to act. In someone like [Dashiell] Hammett -- he went through an almost 180-degree turn in his political and social viewpoint. Hammett was a strike-breaker for the Pinkertons, but towards the end of his life he got jailed for refusing to name names [during America's "communist scare" of the 1950s]. Hammett took it upon himself to act, as he felt that "the order" as it stood was not satisfactory.
I'm familiar with how you were influenced by Macdonald's Lew Archer novels. But do I also sense an influence from Louisiana ... ?
Yes, I do read James Lee Burke, and in fact it does probably show in my own writing. Any Burke book is interesting, as Burke had not read much mystery fiction -- much less any crime fiction -- when he started writing. This, I thought, was very interesting. He was apparently broke and someone said to him, "Hey, if you write a crime novel, people will give you money for it, and it's easy." He had only every read three mystery novels in his life, and I don't believe he reads much in the genre now, either.
There is something stylistically very different in [Burke's] approach to crime fiction. His work is not a product of reading widely in the genre. I like reading his work, as there is this diffusion of Southern Gothic, like [William] Faulkner before him, and the political tradition is very much Dorothy Day socialism. Therefore, his work is not pegged down to the traditions of the crime/mystery genre. For instance, he uses the supernatural quite clearly as well as metaphorical language, using nature, madness, the combination of these and the interrelationships between the living and the dead and how they interact. Those things are stylistically very interesting to me; and as much as I am an ardent admirer of Macdonald and openly admit my influence from him, ... Burke allowed me to realize that you could change the conventions and not be frightened of experimenting.
That's interesting, because in Every Dead Thing, the story is more conventional in terms of crime and mystery, more akin to a Lew Archer novel, whereas your later work is far more experimental, with Burke-like forays into the supernatural and metaphysical.
I guess you're right. Every Dead Thing is kind of a more typical crime/mystery, but remember it was a first novel, and I never expected anyone to publish it, let alone read it. It was in fact rejected before it was even finished.
One aspect of your work that interests me is the impact on it of religion. In Ireland, Roman Catholicism holds such a strong grip on society. Do you think that your own Catholic upbringing generated the religious strands in your work?
Religion has an effect on us all when we are young, and my Parker novels are obviously infused with the classic themes of redemption, punishment and forgiveness. These themes do stem from my Catholic upbringing, undoubtedly; but more importantly, they also probably influenced the supernatural aspects of the books.
How do those aspects go over with readers?
I have noticed in reviews of my work that some people don't like the supernatural elements in my books. That's fine with me. It's not like I'm coming around to their house and beating my chest about it and reading aloud to them with a bullhorn. My view is that if you want to read pure police procedurals, there are plenty of those out there; if you want to read cat mysteries or hard-boiled novels, there are plenty of those out there also. One of the things I find dispiriting is that there are many people out there not taking chances or pushing the boundaries of this genre. It is actually quite easy to write a conventional serial-killer book: You just need to find some method of operation for the serial killer. I recently received a copy of The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl. It was an interesting read -- it has a serial killer operating via Dante's Inferno. But as interesting as it was, it illustrates just how easy it is to plot a serial-killer novel. The difference is that Pearl cast [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow and a bunch of writers to look into the crime.
So in what ways do you think your own work takes chances?
I didn't want to write the same stuff that others were writing, as there seemed little point, as there was so much of the stuff on the shelves already, and a great deal of it was excellent. I was curious right from the beginning to see if I could mix genres within a crime/mystery novel. So with Dark Hollow, I blended in a fairy story. With The Killing Kind, I drew in elements of religious history and also the classical ghost story and the supernatural. And The White Road is very much influenced by Greek mythology. The idea for me is to try fusing these elements in order to make them interesting -- and ultimately failing, ... which is the terribly dispiriting thing about writing: you never, ever quite get the book that's in your head. When I go back over them a year or two later, like I do for [secondary] U.S./Canadian publication, it's soul-destroying, because you see this thing that never quite came together. Maybe they are flawed by their ambition or the fact that whatever aspirations I had for the books never quite matched what they become on paper. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't do it, or you shouldn't try something new or different.
You wrote Every Dead Thing while you were still practicing full-time journalism. It took you five years, I believe, and you went through more than 40 drafts. What was that time like? Were you living in a garret?
Well, I didn't live in a garret. In fact, I was working for The Irish Times, and like most freelance journalists, you take whatever story you are offered. I started with education, property and special reports. I didn't really enjoy a lot of it very much. I was curious to do something very different, because I had become dispirited. ... Many people enter journalism to write, as it's one of the few places that you can get paid for writing. ... The problem is that, if you have a creative streak, then you find that journalism is not particularly creative, as it's methodical and technical and you tend to write in a regimented style. So while I was writing in a journalistic style in the day, I decided to try and write in a completely different style in the evenings. Every Dead Thing began with the prologue, which took absolutely ages to do, as it was the first thing that I had written creatively since the short stories I wrote when I was in school. Apart from a bad poem (or two), that prologue was the only creative writing I had done in over six years or so.
Can we talk later about your poetry?
Sorry, but no, we can't! I have -- luckily for you -- purged myself of all my early poems.
Anyway, [I labored over Every Dead Thing for] two and half years, during which I worked off and on in Maine during the summers [as a waiter]. I had taken extensive notes [there], as I had ... decided that I would focus on an American crime novel. This was because I had been an avid reader of American crime fiction, and I was determined not to get caught up in the Irish Literature tradition, for a whole lot of reasons. ...
So I finally sent out this half-finished book, Every Dead Thing, to a list of literary agents taken from The Writers & Artists Yearbook. Looking back at the period, it is funny that I never understood the relationship between "The Book" and "The Person Who Writes the Book," and I certainly never expected to be "The Person Who Writes the Book." I actually sent out the first three chapters to pretty much everybody. And almost immediately came back this welter of rejection slips. (Bear in mind that I posted out 70 copies!)
Ah, yes. It's such a "wonderful" experience receiving those rejections, isn't it. Were there any real eye-openers among the bunch?
Yes, it certainly is a strange experience. As for personal response, I got one from a British publisher, where the editor had hand-written in red on the bottom of the standard rejection slip how much she hated the book. It is a soul-destroying experience, but at least you know that you're standing out from the crowd!
Looking back at it now, it was an interesting period, even when the reviews came out for Every Dead Thing. There were people who really hated it -- and I mean really hated it. Some of the bad reviews of Every Dead Thing were the worst I've ever read for any novel ever published. There were one or two that were real kickings. Balancing that, though, were the people who really like it -- and they really liked it! I actually prefer my work to get a strong reaction rather than just, well, it's OK ... Saying that, it was difficult getting these mixed messages when I sent out the first three chapters. One agent ...did reply, and told me that I had screwed things up [by] sending this to every agent in the UK: having read it and rejected it, they are rather unlikely to read it again once it's finished. But he told me that he happened to like it, and that I should finish it -- but you should only finish it because you want to finish it, and you don't want to leave the book half-finished in the drawer, and tell your grandchildren that you once tried to write a book. I thought that that was a very good piece of advice. It was also rather liberating, as no one was telling me what I should write. [The novel], therefore, stayed the way it was, [with] this peculiar hourglass structure that it follows, chasing the character [of Charlie Parker] rather than the plot. It remains an oddly structured book. Once I had delivered it to my agent, he targeted it to people who hadn't seen it before. He didn't give them the prologue, as he felt it might put them off. He submitted a later section.
As I recall, the opening features Parker as this real loser, and the book is almost two halves of a journey; it is only in the later sections that you start to warm up to Parker. That prologue seemed almost an obstacle for the reader, with its viscerally detailed murders of Parker's wife and child.
That is a very valid point. There have been people who have said to me, "Look, I'd have loved to have read it, but I couldn't get past the prologue," and that may be one of the many flaws of the book. The prologue is so uncompromising, and it is even technically a difficult piece to read. I am still surprised that it actually got published. It was even more interesting when the book was submitted to the U.S. publishers. There were these gradations of changes that they wanted to make. Overall, they liked the book but wanted to alter the structure that forms the backbone of the narrative. Then Simon & Schuster came back, and they didn't want as many changes as the others, which was great. They liked it for what it was, but wanted to "clean it up" a little, like any first novel requires. ... So the structure for the U.S. [edition] basically remained exactly the same as I had envisioned. ... I still am to this day surprised that it got published, because as a crime novel, it was quite an odd book for the genre.
You named your series protagonist after one of America's most legendary jazz men, Charlie "Bird" Parker. Why? Do you have a special fondness for Parker or jazz?
Actually, I wanted the nickname. I liked the contrast between the associations of spirituality, flight and freedom with a character who was, on one level, absolutely mired in mortality and, on another, gradually finds himself opening up to the possibilities of other worlds within worlds. And there is a (very) small joke there, in that Parker doesn't like jazz, and his parents had no idea who the musician Charlie Parker was.
I noticed that you dedicated your most recent novel, The White Road, to your agent, Darley Anderson, who also represents Lee Child, another non-American who sets his work in the States. What is your relationship with Anderson?
I guess the relationship has matured, and I guess Darley would consider The Killing Kind to be his favorite among my works so far, because it was the most commercial, in terms of being the most straightforward. We get on because he looks at things in a very different way. His instincts are very commercial and he can spot things others may miss. He is the only person who sees my work before it's passed to the publisher. I don't give it to anyone to read. In fact, it's hard enough to see it on the shelf, let alone having friends read it!
Anderson would seem to have been vindicated in his appreciation of The Killing Kind by the fact that the book has been cited as your "breakthrough" novel, and last year it won Charlie Parker a coveted Sherlock Award.
Well, for a "breakthrough novel," it sold much less than its two predecessors. Perhaps, critically, it was better received than the earlier books. I put the problem with regard to the sales down to the heavy influence of the spiders in the book. The lesson to be learned for all you writers out there: Do not put spiders in your book if you want it to sell!
Your Web site features some short ghost stories. Why is that?
After Dark Hollow was published, I was approached by the BBC, who asked me if there was anything I wanted to do for TV. The books take so much time to write that I struggle to find the time to do anything else, and the idea of banging my head at a 90-minute script didn't really appeal. I was, however, curious about perhaps doing something for radio. I like the narrative style of radio. I like the idea of someone sitting in their car or in their bedroom listening to a play. ... I thought it would be interesting to see if I could write stories influenced by an earlier tradition, namely the ghost story. I still feel that I'm not too good as a short-story writer, as I prefer the panorama that a novel allows. These ghost stories were written as plays but without dialogue, so they were written as monologues, for a male actor to narrate. The BBC broadcast them at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. I then got this welter of complaints from people -- especially about "The Ritual of the Bones," which was quite a nasty story -- but one or two others had the same reaction. The complaints came from people who were sitting down to dinner with their kids after school. ... So the next time they broadcast them was at midnight! [Laughs] ... For the people who missed them, and for people in America, it was natural for me to stick them on the Web site.
Would you be up for writing more short stories?
I am torn about short stories, as I don't really read them personally. When I get asked to do them, I generally turn them down ... But going back to the ghost stories, I like the idea of giving something back to my readers, so while they're waiting for the next book, they can read these online. Every so often, I'll sneak one on [to the site], and if you like them, all well and good. If you don't -- hey, they're free, all you pay for is the cost of a call to get online, and the paper if you want to print them off.
There is a tremendous gothic tradition in Irish Literature, going back to J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Bram Stoker, et al. Is it a coincidence that you also have a gothic strain in your own work, despite its being written within the crime genre?
It may be partly as a result of reading those works, and it is something that is defiantly in Irish Literature. But interestingly, it is really most prevalent in Irish Protestant fiction rather than in Irish Catholic fiction ... Without getting into a history lesson, it is certainly linked to a notion of decay. This, in terms of the notion that this Protestant Irish aristocracy was slowly going down the tubes, gradually being cut off from the new Ireland. You still have remains of these huge relics of Protestant Irish country houses dotting the landscape. This has something to do with the Irish Gothic tradition -- the decay. A lot of this [Gothic flavor] is also seen in the British writers, such as [Charles] Dickens and M.R.[Montague Rhodes] James. There was also, in my opinion, a strand of Gothic writing in California, and in [America's] Deep South, with Faulkner. Ross Macdonald is a Gothic writer. Gothic has to do with family and generations, as well as decay. Macdonald really focuses on this in his own way, as does James Lee Burke. There may well be an element of Irish Gothic in my work, but I would point out that there are large influences of Californian and Deep Southern Gothic, too.
I had the chance not long ago to talk with Straw Men author Michael Marshall (Smith), and he said that the interesting part of a person's character is what he or she doesn't reveal. Is there a lot of you that isn't revealed?
For me, the interesting thing about writing is that it allows you to explore parts of your own nature and yourself that you perhaps wouldn't in another vocation. Although when I write in first-person, it's not me, it's Parker, and you don't get to mediate between the two, but you do get to explore the links through the character and yourself. I've certainly explored aspects of the death of my father, because the books are filled with absent fathers. That was not consciously done, it just emerged during the writing process.
That's interesting. Stephen King does a similar thing, and like you, he endured an absent father.
You have to explore these things, even if it is done unconsciously. That is what gives the books additional emotional resonance. You have to put elements of yourself in your books, even if you don't realize that you're doing it at the time. Macdonald used to say that his books were violent -- so that he didn't have to be. That applies to a whole lot of different things. Crime writers and readers are a very well-adjusted bunch of people. Despite writing and reading some quite dark and violent books, most of them are very personable people. Some, maybe, are not ... and when those guys die, I'll go to their funerals, just to make sure that they're dead. [Laughs] But the majority are quite amiable.
So it seems to me that in mystery books you do get to work out things that a lot of people don't get to work out. I get to put out all this awful stuff about myself in my books, but no one gets to know which parts are about me and which are not.
You feature some splendid villains in your work, from the Traveling Man to Elias Pudd. Where do these grotesques came from?
I was very influenced by Ian Fleming. He was one of the first adult writers I read, if you can call Fleming an "adult writer." Seriously, he did carve out some very grotesque villains in his career. In the newer Bond movies, I think the villains are terrible, they are like Robert Carlyle or Sean Bean, ... no longer the really grotesque villains that Fleming envisioned, like Mr. Big, Blofeld, Dr. No or Auric Goldfinger.
Parker is very morally ambiguous as a character, ... so there needed to be this huge contrast between him and his adversaries. Also, I like the idea of giving him baddies that we could all hiss at. So the villains have become larger than life, especially as I disliked realist fiction, so I can get away with grotesqueness as a feature of the villains. ... James Lee Burke also uses grotesque villains. I remember when I interviewed him, I asked him about them. He attributed this to the fact that when you have someone so morally corrupt, that inner corruption finds physical expression. And that is a much better way of explaining why sometimes villains become so grotesque. So these people are so corrupt that it's almost seeping through their pores and has altered their appearance. I like that concept and it sits well with my own work. ... The whole idea of people so vile that they almost metamorphose in front of you is something that appeals me.
Everyone focused on the insect-loving Pudd as this totally evil villain, in The Killing Kind. But I was more intrigued by his nemesis, "The Golem" -- the Jewish revenger of legend -- as he's drawn with intriguing vagueness. Where did you get the inspiration for these two villains?
Research for The Killing Kind involved a certain amount of Jewish mysticism, and the background for all the books involves a great deal of research. I have a shelf in my library devoted to things like demonology, mythology, witchcraft and those areas of the supernatural. When I sat down to write The Killing Kind, I became interested in the myth of the Golem. ... My original idea was that he'd return in The White Road, and in fact, he appears in the initial draft. But that didn't work for me either, so I took him out. Sometimes in books, you put things in, and they take a life of their own. [Pudd] is an interesting character, and I get a lot of e-mails from readers who ask, "Why does the book end this way? Why doesn't he come back?" Thinking back now, I feel that perhaps there were effectively three deeply nasty individuals, and I didn't want to stretch myself too thin.
A similar thing happened in Dark Hollow with Stritch, as he developed with more facets to his character than I had originally imagined. I guess also it's a question of balance. In Bad Men, I have this character called Willard. [He] is the character that has stuck in people's minds. The interesting thing is that he's not the ring-leader, but almost a peripheral character; yet he's so deeply unpleasant. He was unplanned. I don't plan books; in fact, I don't have the patience to plan extensively. For me, the books emerge in the drafting process, and as they get re-drafted again and again and again, layers emerge, as do characters. I barely know what I am going to write when I begin. I have a vague notion of what the story is about, but no written outline, no written plot. If someone asked me the plot, I'd probably manage two lines of it, but only in a very vague way. So when you write in that way, the book evolves ... Naturally, then, characters are going to surprise you. Naturally, things are going to crop up that you didn't expect. In fact, nothing is intentional, apart from getting to the end of the damned thing and finishing it.
Another character who sticks in the mind is the Reverend Faulkner. I was pleased to see his evil return in The White Road.
That was not intentional. At one point, The Killing Kind was going to be the end of the [Parker] trilogy, and everyone was going to die ... The last resonance of that was in my original ending, where we see Parker taking his war to the next world, like Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine, with the words, "I will set black flags in the firmament" -- which I think is a wonderful image. ... I really intended to end the saga then, but I realized that that there were elements that I wanted to follow through with, and pick upon again and explore. So I was surprised when The White Road materialized in the way that it did. I had obviously been thinking about the themes that it explores, I guess when I was half-way through The Killing Kind, but I am still surprised that it turned out the way it did ... It is, with hindsight, almost a coda to the three books that went before it. And that is why I probably decided to stop the Parker series for a while, and think about it -- hence, Bad Men being the next book.
Why, in The White Road, did you take Parker out of Maine and send him south?
I guess I needed to shake up the series. I was getting too comfortable with things, as I feel I have to strive to produce something different with every book. I have become very familiar with Maine as a backdrop for Parker, and perhaps felt as a writer I needed to try and set a whole book against a completely different backdrop. The first problem was the extensive research I needed to do on South Carolina, never mind a specific location, as the state is quite big. In theory, it could have been set in Alabama or Tennessee, but there were particular circumstances that made me set it in South Carolina. There is this strange duality, because in one way it's so incredibly backward as a state, yet it's very cultured and full of history. It has a very dark streak in its history, and when I was there, they were still flying the Confederate flag openly. It is a state in which 34 black churches were burned to the ground in the last decade, and that tells you something about the place ...
When you were doing research for that novel, with its story built around Southern racism, did you not find that some people were reticent to speak with you on the subject? After all, racism remains a very volatile issue in the States.
The White Road was a difficult book, [because] although it deals on one level with racism, ... so it could as easily be about Northern Ireland as it is about the Deep South, it really deals with the inability of some of the people to shake off their history ... If you talk to enough people, you're going to meet some who think that the 1950s weren't so bad, segregation wasn't so bad. This is not just from white people; in fact, some of the blacks would say the same thing, like "We had our own schools, our own identity, ... and we made sacrifices, too, with the civil-rights movement." But maybe trying to get a cross-section of opinion is about as close to the truth as you are likely to get.
I have, though, become quite obsessive about the research side of my writing, and I worry incredibly about getting my facts correct. The awful result is that it teaches you about the imperfectability of the human condition, because no matter how many times I go back and review the work, one mistake will always creep back in there, in every book. And you are guaranteed that in all the known universe, the three people that will notice will be the three that buy your book!
It must have been easier, then, doing research for Bad Men, since that story is set on a fictional island.
I thought ... I could make it all up. I'm a fiction writer, that's what I do -- I make things up. But the shock to me was that I couldn't! I ended up having to go to Maine, look around the islands, and find one that suited the story. I found a place where there are two Portland police officers stuck on it, and the island is dotted with watchtowers where they put gun emplacements during World War II. I talked to the policemen, talked to the postmaster and got a feel for the place, and then went back and used that location as the backdrop for the book. So unless I felt for the place, I realized that I couldn't communicate it to the reader. ... My nightmare is that I get an e-mail from someone from Maine, or Louisiana or South Carolina telling me that "You've obviously never been here, you got it wrong." So you need to go to the places you want to write about.
I think you avoid some of the more nihilistic tendencies that are common to a lot of dark crime novels. I'd say there's a moral code in your work, instead. Could you comment?
[That nihilism] sometimes arises out of a misunderstanding of noir. If you look at, perhaps, [the films] Build My Gallows High or Double Indemnity, they feature doomed heroes ... [who] really have no hope, and that lack of hope never appealed to me. Because my books have followed this trajectory of sin and then repentance, followed through to salvation by redemption, it seems natural that they should not have a nihilistic outlook on life. It is not one that I share, and so it really doesn't appear in my work.
I have really read very few books that have been nihilistic and truthful at the same time. People who are inclined that way are mentally ill. [Laughs] Even someone as dark as Andrew Vachss, whose works are incredibly sadistic -- I can't read them because of their bleakness -- even in Vachss' work there is still that feeling that the individual can achieve some difference in the world. There is a kind a resolution. Look at George Pelecanos' books, especially the Nick Stefanos series. [P.I. Stefanos] comes out bruised and battered, and maybe not a happier guy than when he went in; but still, something has been achieved. The battle was not for nil. Pelecanos has such an acute social conscience, that I don't think he would allow himself to write a book in which there was not some value at the end of it.
Speaking of social conscience, I recently discovered the books by British author Martyn Waites (Mary's Prayer, Candleland and Little Triggers) and noticed that they'd been reissued with a blurb from you on the cover. What do you really think of this "cult" novelist?
I find Martyn's work quite difficult to read at times, and his are not on the list of books that I would pass to my mother. Martyn has quite a dark view of the world, and he is the classic example of the guy who smiles out of the darkness. ... What I like about his work is, firstly, his writing style, and then the contrast between the bleak world he portrays and his very strong social conscience. His new book [Born Under Punches], due soon, is set against the backdrop of the British miners' strike [of 1984], and I am really excited about it, because like Pelecanos, he writes about the world that most of us never see. ... [Waites] is one of those writers who is going to get more and more interesting as his work progresses. Another writer that fits that criteria is Paul Johnston ... Paul is writing novels of ideas, which in crime and mystery fiction are quite rare today. Particularly British mystery/crime fiction. This is an intelligent guy writing intelligent books.
It's curious that you should bring up Johnston, as I had a chance to speak with him not long ago, following the publication of A Deeper Shade of Blue, his first novel to feature Greek P.I. Alex Mavros. Have you read that new book?
I liked the book very much, but I also appreciated the difficulty in writing the first novel in a series ... You have to lay so much groundwork, and that is what he has had to do with A Deeper Shade of Blue -- putting out a stall for what will become a truly interesting series. Paul ... will explore avenues that many of his peers are not exploring yet.
I understand that you've also recently applauded American Robert Littell's mammoth spy novel, The Company. What about that book intrigued you most?
I admire the ambition of it. I don't know a great deal about espionage, but it felt right to me. ... I always worry about getting things right in my own work. I imagine Littell has the same thoughts, even though 99.9 per cent of people are not going to know whether [what he writes is] right or not ... [The Company] is a very, very intricate book. I think that he's writing in a debased genre. People like [Tom] Clancy have debased the espionage thriller, making it more techno-babble than real suspense. [Littell] has put character, he's put ideas, he's put thought and he's put emotion into his book, and very interestingly he's intermingled real-life characters into the story. The ability to intermingle real-life characters with fictional ones is a very difficult thing to do. This is most evident with the character of Jesus James Angleton ... I'm not sure what Angleton might make of his portrayal (if he's still alive, that is), but Littell pulls off the task of trying to get an actor to inhabit the skin of a real human being. The sketches of the Kennedys around the Cuban Missile Crisis were also very well realized, especially as they were very lightly done, but beautifully written. So again, my admiration stems from the ambition that Littell had when he embarked upon The Company. I feel he reclaimed the espionage genre from its current debased state.
Let's go back to Dark Hollow for a second. You mentioned that it incorporated a fairy-tale aspect. Could you say more about why you took that route?
I had been reading, at the time, the Brothers Grimm. I guess I was trying to make connections between dark folk tales and crime fiction, as they both fulfill the same purpose. Dark folk tales enabled people to deal with the darker aspects of their lives in a different way. It allowed them to confront their fears; in a similar way, crime fiction allows us to confront modern fears.
If you look at some of the statistics, it's principally women who buy and read mystery fiction. ... In fact, women tend be in the majority of readers, per se. It was women who really latched onto Patricia Cornwell and made her the best-selling writer she is today, like they did also with Kathy Reichs. They are writers who deal explicitly with the female body -- especially [true in] the early works of Cornwell ... [And] true-crime books, especially the ones featuring explicit sexual crimes, sell nearly exclusively to women ... Why is that? Is it because we need to try and confront the things that are deeply upsetting to us? Nobody ever wants to be a victim of a sex criminal, and we may have a deep-seated fear about that; yet we are also curious about it, about things that frighten us. Ultimately, mystery/crime fiction is about living and dying, if you strip the genre to its core.
Do you find writing these books cathartic, then? After all, they give you the chance to explore both big themes and idiosyncratic fears at some remove.
Mystery fiction should emotionally engage with the reader. And going back to an earlier question: Dorothy Sayers and Christie did not engage with me when I read them. Actually that's not fair, as they did engage me intellectually, just not emotionally. I think in the past, readers of mystery/crime fiction were underestimated ... They/we were often thought of as being too dumb to read anything else but crime fiction. The genre was also not held in high regard, as it was generally viewed as an easy, quick read, and not challenging enough to a greater intellect. I, however, viewed the genre from the opposite end, because it contained the big themes of suffering, rage, justice. Why do all these bad things happen, and can't some of us stand up for those weaker than us? Those are important questions, and in answering them, you should engage the reader emotionally. And if you do, there should be some outpouring of emotion, even if it is rage at the turn of events.
Dennis Lehane provides a good example of this in Gone, Baby, Gone, a fabulous book which many of his fans didn't enjoy as much as his others. It has a bleak ending and a morally ambiguous story. In fact, Lehane told me that when he was writing it, a child called Jeffery Curley went missing in Boston, and after three days he was found dead. Lehane felt that he just could not write, in all conscience, a book in which everything turned out rosy in the shadow of something so terrible. So that brings to bear emotional honesty and truthfulness, and amongst those issues comes the catharsis for the writer.
But we don't always read crime fiction to be sucked through emotional wringers.
No, there should also be elements that give you a thrill, the elements that make you flick through the pages to see what happens next. In the end, I hope my books combine all those elements, and that they provoke thought, and perhaps allow you to look at situations in a slightly different way. Fiction is like a prism, it should refract life, and you should see the elements that make up life dispersed and then reassembled.
In the course of reading The Killing Kind, I laughed when Parker burned his fingers on Pudd's business card, and then wouldn't shake hands with anyone for ages. Humor is an integral part of the genre, too. What does this mean to you?
Well, you need humor -- otherwise, reading a mystery/crime novel would be like being [stretched] on the rack for a few hours. ... People need release. People are resilient, as we often confront some truly dark things. Look at the aftermath of a funeral. During the funeral it's awful, this ritual of putting a body or ashes in the ground; but afterwards it's a different thing altogether. An hour later in the pub, people are talking, people are laughing, and the worst is out of the way. So if you want to continue living a life, you have to move on. Even at my lowest point, I have always been able to raise a smile -- black humor. This is a natural thing. But the danger in mystery fiction is not to make light of some of the things that we see around us. You don't often get people laughing over bodies. The laughter comes afterwards, almost tangentially.
Some of the books I have a problem with are those by Joe Lansdale. I have to say, first, that The Bottoms is an absolutely poetic book -- deeply, deeply moving and a fabulous read. The books that I have a problem with are his Hap [Collins] and Leonard [Pine] novels. These books have, in my opinion, become deeply problematical, as they're sometimes simply not funny. In the last one, Captains Outrageous, a woman is tortured by having her hands and feet cut off. That, to me, was not a suitable source of humor. In Bad Chili, it was homosexuals getting their teeth kicked in. That is not funny to me, yet he's marketed as a humorous writer.
Like many modern fictional detectives, Charlie Parker comes with a sidekick -- two of them, in fact. Can you talk about Louis and Angel, both of whom figure prominently in The White Road?
There are certain things in mystery fiction that are almost clichés or conventions. It's the way you use them that determines whether they become a cliché or a convention. In Every Dead Thing, Parker was such a lonely character, it would have been very hard for the reader to sympathize with him or to feel anything for him over the long haul. So along came Louis and Angel, and these two guys allowed him to show a streak of humor. ... I realized I needed these [sorts of characters], yet I didn't want to introduce some guy with a huge gun, kicking in doors. I also wanted to see if I could be a little subversive, or at least try something different. So (a) they are gay and (b) they are the only ones with any form of functioning relationship in the books ... In some way, Louis and Angel are the dark side of Parker -- magnified -- yet they have this humanity and loyalty to one another, and toward those they see acting on their behalf. ...
I am always surprised by readers when they tell me how much they love these guys and how funny they find them. They are funny -- but you shouldn't find them that funny, because the reality is that they are deeply unpleasant people. At the end of The Killing Kind, as well as the start of The White Road, [Louis and Angel] have become these deeply ambiguous characters. This forces you to look deeper into them. [Consider] the barroom scene at the start of The White Road, where they kill three elderly men for whatever terrible crimes they may have committed in the past. What does [that say about] these individuals?
The evolution of those two characters takes an opposite trajectory from that of Bubba Rugowski, in Lehane's Kenzie/Gennaro series. Bubba starts out as a pretty unpleasant character in A Drink Before the War and ends up almost cuddly in Prayers for Rain.
He even gets laid! But, yes, I have gone the other way, as [Louis and Angel] become more and more unpleasant. I really think these are deeply immoral characters and that, initially, I had not been true to their real natures. Just because they are funny and charming doesn't make them nice human beings. Parker's loyalty toward them is not due to them being decent people, but more from their show of loyalty to him in the past ...
A lot of the reason why many crime writers use sidekicks is just that they can do things that perhaps the "hero" can't, for whatever reason. Harlan Coben is a classic example. I love Harlan's books, and he uses Win Lockwood III to do the things that [sports agent-cum-sleuth Myron] Bolitar wouldn't do. He often gets Bolitar off the hook, allowing the hero to remain nearly untainted -- as long as you don't look too close at the morality of having someone else do your dirty work. With Parker, its slightly more complex than that, because by the end of The White Road, there is the suggestion that he has compromised himself a little too deeply with [Louis and Angel]; that, in effect, he cannot take that step away, because he is not untainted. He has to confront the fact that a part of him is a little like them, and that Louis has understood this all the way through the books. Louis sends Parker a gun, which he loses, saying, "That's me, I'm done, I'm finished with guns." But then Louis sends him another one. So what seems like a generous gesture from Louis is in reality an understanding of Parker's true nature, because what Louis is really implying by the gesture is, Don't think you can walk away from this, because you can't; you have a responsibility for this and to us.
One thing I think you do especially well is mine Charlie Parker's past. In The Killing Kind, for example, you brought in the character of Grace Peltier, a Ph.D. candidate and a girlfriend plucked from your detective's history. Did you set out to build a specific back story for Parker, or has that developed with the series itself?
No, Parker's back story developed along the way. As you're writing, things crop up that sound right, or feel right. In [politician and literary critic] Gerald Kaufman's review of Every Dead Thing, I guess he misunderstood the book on one level. There is a story in the middle where Parker is describing how he broke this stained-glass window in this bar as a child. This grotesque, vicious criminal opened the bar, and he wanted the bar to be beautiful -- hence the stained-glass window. Parker and one of his mates broke the window by putting a cistern through it, and this guy hunts them down. Parker was betrayed by his friend, to save his own skin. Parker gets tortured by having fire ants thrown at him. In effect, the answer to the problems that lie within Every Dead Thing lie in that story -- it's a microcosm. Anyway, Kaufman remarked that I had wasted a chapter talking about Parker as a child being tortured by fire ants. He couldn't understand the significance. So when I'm pulling in bits from Parker's past, it's for a purpose in helping to define and explain his character and understand why he is doing these things. With Grace Peltier, I wanted Parker to become emotionally involved in the case; but on a purely technical level, you also need a reason for the hero to get involved, otherwise it would be contrived. Then again, perhaps all mystery fiction is contrived?
Another element of The Killing Kind that I found compelling was its band of religious zealots, which I gather was loosely based on reality.
The initial idea for the book was, indeed, about religious obsession and a group of people who followed a religious but ultimately evil man to their deaths. ... So I went to Maine, and I discovered that Maine, in the past -- like most of New England -- was a hotbed of religious lunacy for the first two or three hundred years of its history. Then all of a sudden, I had this wonderful history that I could draw upon for the book's back story. The reality was that, in Maine during this time, there where all these weird religious movements, and so I only had to invent [another] one, the Aroostook Baptists. All the rest of the history in that book is real. The story of the people following the preacher to build this great city just outside Portland, then dying of starvation and disease, ... as well as the other stories about preachers leading a flock to Africa and the Middle East and just abandoning them -- they are all real, they happened. ... I think that gives The Killing Kind a resonance that [it] wouldn't have had, otherwise. I think that works in the book -- the split story of what is happening today running parallel with what happened a couple of hundred years in the past.
You said earlier that you've stopped writing the Parker books "for a while." Are you being disingenuous? Was The White Road Parker's swan song, or do you really intend to return to that series at some point?
No, my worry was just that if I were to write another Parker book right now, it would be a tired book. And I was also unsure as to how I was going to do it, considering that I look to do something different each time, to test myself. Dark Hollow was nominated for a literary prize in Ireland a few years ago, which incidentally it didn't win ... One of the judges asked me during the dinner about when I would be writing a book more appropriate to my talents. ... There are three possible responses to that comment, the first being one that ends with "off," and the second one is the paranoid one: Maybe he's right, maybe I should write with the target of the Booker Prize. The third option is the one that I followed: I will write what I really want to write. I read so much commercial fiction that is just not good, whereas I want to write a real page-turning book, which uses everything that I have learned so far and which is written as well as I could possibly do it.
And Bad Men gave you the break you needed?
I wanted to write a book that moved fast. Ostensibly, the Parker novels started as first-person narratives, but by The White Road, they're not. So when it came to Bad Men, I wanted to do a book that also was not confined with a first-person voice, but also I wanted it to be based at a highly specific geographic location and over a specific period of time. The last third of the book takes place over one day, with the last quarter taking place over one hour. It is very different, insofar as the Parker novels are 70 per cent mystery and 30 per cent supernatural, while Bad Men is more 30 per cent mystery and 70 per cent supernatural, because at its core it is a ghost story.
Can you briefly synopsize the plot of Bad Men?
I have to admit when I told the publishers what Bad Men was about they said, "Yes, but seriously, what is it about?" [Laughs] It is about a giant policeman living on a small island called Sanctuary off the coast of Maine. He is forced to defend a woman and her child when her husband escapes from jail, then leads a band of killers to the island to kill her for betraying him and stealing his money. The giant policemen has been having a series of dreams in which he sees that 300 years ago, he led a group of men and renegade Indians onto a small island off the coast of Maine to protect his wife from a killer. Gradually, something has been waiting for the elements of history to come together so that the events can be relived, but with perhaps a different ending. ... Some people are going to hate [Bad Men], I guarantee it. But some will get a blast out of it.
So what novel is gestating in your head nowadays?
I have, I guess, a two- to two-and-a-half-year period for each book, from gestation to [the novel] hitting the bookshelves. I was in the Czech Republic in the later part of , and ... part of the next Parker novel may well be set there, or in Eastern Europe. This would be a very gothic novel, incredibly gothic.
How do you see your present position within the crime fiction genre?
Well, I am still to this day surprised that the books have done as well as they have. There are easier books to read if you want to read mystery fiction. There are less complex books, less problematical books in the genre. Darley Anderson said to me, if I had made a few slight concessions to the wider readership, I might have been able to sell more books. My view has been that I'm not sure if it really matters, as the question to me is more, "Do you want to be [John] Grisham or Lee Burke?" James Lee Burke spent nearly 30 years before he got to the bestseller lists, but he stuck to his guns in what he wanted to do. I understand that viewpoint in my own approach to writing. The books are what they are, and they're around because they deal with issues that I wanted to explore. I could make them simpler, less complex, but then why would I bother writing them?
A few years back, you were contemplating a relocation to Maine. Are you still interested in moving to the United States?
I did consider that, but the odd thing about writing and researching the U.S. for my books is that the more I go over, the less I actually want to live there, especially under the current regime. I still like America, and perhaps would like to have a base to spend long periods of time, and that would be in Maine, I guess. Relocating permanently? No, I don't think I would. I enjoy being an outsider looking in. I like living in Europe. It's not perfect, but show me a place that is. | April 2003
Ali Karim is an industrial chemist and freelance journalist living in England. He contributes to Shots magazine and the Deadly Pleasures Web site, and is currently working on Wreaths, a techno-thriller set in the world of plant viruses and out-of-work espionage agents.