The Black Angel

by John Connolly

Published by Atria Books

496 pages, 2005










Go Ask Alice

Reviewed by Ali Karim


Irish crime novelist John Connolly has been ploughing a distinctive literary furrow for the last several years (ever since the publication of Every Dead Thing in 1999), locating a niche for himself along the darkest edge of this frequently dark genre -- an edge where we find our world of the living firmly butted up against that of the dead and dying. To guide us along this perilous brink, Connolly recruits New York City police detective-turned-private eye Charlie "Bird" Parker, a man who, in The Black Angel, finds his world falling apart, just when he thought he was pulling it back together again.

As Angel takes wing, Parker has settled down in Maine. He continues to mourn the murders of his wife and their 3-year-old daughter years before, even as he struggles to carve out a new life with lover Rachel Wolfe and their quiet infant daughter, Samantha. During Sam's christening, Parker's sometime-sidekick Louis -- half of a psycho homosexual partnership with the no less violent or resourceful Angel -- is confronted by his aunt Martha. It seems that her daughter, a drug-addicted New York City prostitute named Alice, has disappeared, and she wants help in retrieving the lost lass.

In Connolly's portrayal, Alice ("or LaShan, as she called herself on the streets") was destined for trouble -- a woman "who fell down a rabbit hole and never came back."

Martha was Louis's aunt. A man named Deeber, now dead, had fathered a child upon her, a girl. They called her Alice, and they loved her, but she was never a happy child. She rebelled against the company of women, and turned instead to men. They told her that she was beautiful, for she was, but she was young and angry. Something gnawed deep inside her, its hunger exacerbated by the actions of the women who had loved her and cared for her. They had told her that her father was dead, but it was only through others that she learned of the kind of man he was, and the manner in which he had left this world. Nobody knew who was responsible for his death, but there were rumors, hints that the neatly dressed black women in the house with the pretty garden had colluded in his killing, along with her cousin, the boy called Louis.

So far, a pretty straightforward plot for a P.I. novel, right? But then The Black Angel abandons the familiar conventions of missing-persons cases and strikes out instead for much grimmer and more engrossing territory, as Parker's hunt for errant Alice leads him into the odious rat's nests of our supposedly refined modern society: the crack-dens, red-light districts, and diseased and dying corners of overcrowded Manhattan. While in the shadows lurk a cadre of people who call themselves "The Believers" -- though what precisely they believe in remains a mystery until the close of this novel.

Our uncertain and brooding hero soon discovers that Alice was mixed up with some extremely diabolical forces. And that her disappearance may be linked to the search for a religious artifact known as the Black Angel, which vanished during the last months of World War II from a monastery in what's now the Czech Republic, and which, prior to that, had been coveted for centuries by malefactors of competitively evil stripe. Were the forces recently closing around Alice really "fallen angels," led by a grotesque called Brightwell -- a creature who walks the earth, just endeavoring to find a pathway back to Heaven? Or is Brightwell simply in charge of a group of likeminded mad folk? It doesn't take Parker long to uncover an international network of ardent collectors who trade in unusual artifacts, a number of which have been carved from dried human skin and bones. In addition, he begins to suspect that his own, personal struggles may be linked together in unobvious ways, and also connected with the forces he investigates in these pages. Parker's world, it seems, could be far more dangerous than even he realized.

Angel is in part a chase novel, with sleuth Parker and killer Louis endeavoring to find Alice, at the same time as darker players search for the religious artifact that may or may not be their key to Heaven -- the same key that links Alice to the "next world."

But this is a novel, too, that tackles more than one sort of mystery. John Connolly's work is quite different from what else is being done in crime fiction these days. He layers a supernatural veil over his literary proceedings, though it is often hard to draw firm boundaries between what might be supernatural ... and what are merely the ravings of the lunatics who tend to people Charlie Parker's realm. It is this dichotomy that I find so very interesting. This author's stories boast an ambiguity that mirrors real life. Because, if you think about it, much of what surrounds us in the "real world" cannot be explained adequately on a secular/scientific basis; nor can it be rationalized entirely in theological/religious terms. Our world is replete with ambiguity and darkness, an uneven amalgam of the secular and the religious -- part Heaven and part Hell.

Certainly, there are hellish aspects to Angel, and a feeling of doom enshrouds the entire narrative. Parker eventually has to move Rachel and Sam away from their new home, because the forces of evil mean to harm his family -- again, just as they did in Every Dead Thing. In some respects this novel resembles a Robert Altman film; in both, we find lives intersecting and crisscrossing, meandering and colliding. It is particularly interesting here where the lives of innocents and series regulars intersect those of villains. Connolly possesses an enviable gift for creating purposeful fiends, who -- despite being repellent and larger than life -- come off as credible and, more importantly, scary. In Angel, Brightwell dominates the rogue's gallery. He's a truly hideous creation, but must share the stage at times with other memorable psychopaths, including two former U.S. Army veterans who made a decision amid the fog of war in 1945 that could prove their undoing. It is Connolly's villains who really put the chill into his yarns, because they challenge the definition of humanness. A few would have fit comfortably into the gothic worlds of H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth and Robert Bloch. Even in The Black Angel, Parker can't escape thoughts of his encounters with previous foes, including The Traveling Man (from Every Dead Thing) and Reverend Faulkner, who first came to haunt this gumshoe in The Killing Kind (reviewed in "The Rap Sheet," 12/02).

"And I remembered the preacher, Faulkner, trapped in his prison cell, his children dead and his hateful crusade at an end. I saw again his hands reaching out for me through the bars, felt the heat radiating from his aged, wiry body and heard once more the words that he spoke to me before spitting his foul poison into my mouth. "What you have faced until now is nothing compared to what is approaching. ... The things that are coming for you are not even human."

Beyond its plotting and character attractions, Angel benefits from Connolly's marvelous dexterity with the English language. His prose can only be described as beautiful, because it is nothing if not that. When lashed into the service of scene-setting, his writing cannot help but thrill. Here, for instance, Connolly describes All Saints Church, a "relatively modest house of worship seated at the center of a muddy graveyard," in the small Czech town of Sedlec:

But All Saints is not as it might seem from the outside, for it is in fact two structures. The first, the chapel, is aboveground; the second, known as Jesus Christ on the Mount of Olives, lies below. While what is above is a monument to the prospect of a better life beyond this one, what lies beneath is a testament to the transience of all things mortal. It is a strange place, a buried place, and none who spend time among its wonders can ever forget it. ...

A great chandelier of skulls hangs from the ossuary ceiling. Skulls form the base for its candleholders, each resting on pelvic arches, with a humerus clasped beneath its upper jaw. Where delicate crystals should hang, bones dangle vertically, connecting the skulls to the central support via a system of vertebrae. There are more bones here, small and large, forming the support itself and adorning the chains that anchor the skulls to the ceiling. Great lines of skulls, each clasping a bone beneath its jaw, line the arches of the ossuary to each side of the chandelier. They hang in loops, and form four narrow pyramids in the center of the floor, creating a square beneath the chandelier, each skull capable of holding a single candle in the center of the cranium. ...

Here, the dead sleep.

Although Angel is certainly a dark read, it is not without some humor. There are sequences likely to make you laugh out loud -- but then cause you to suck in your breath, as you realize that the author has exploited your instinctive amusement in order to expose your recognition of what lies on the sinister side of human nature. There are many things that are simply not funny; but when viewed through the jaundiced eyes of this novel's madmen, they are endowed with a certain grim wit.

My only (hesitant) criticism of the writing here is that its brilliance occasionally overpowers the plot. Connolly's sentence construction and enthusiastic exposition of ideas compel one to pause -- to think, to question the truths of life and death -- when what you really want to do is rush onward through the chapters in order to find out why Alice disappeared, how the torture-happy Believers figure into her departure, and whether Parker can dive into the den of madmen, but survive with his sanity intact.

Despite this book's supernatural overtones, it's sometimes hard to separate fact from fabrication. Connolly is an extensive and meticulous researcher, and he blends reality (the existence of an actual All Saints Church, for instance) with storytelling invention in such a seamless manner, that the reader is left grateful for being so duped. The Black Angel is the fifth Charlie Parker novel (though the character also appeared in a novella in Connolly's short-story collection, Noctures, which was released in the States earlier this year), and because of its complex thriller elements and intimations of religious connection, it may attract some of the very same readers who were enthralled by Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code. Of course, anyone making the leap between Brown and Connolly is in for a few surprises. Angel is by far the more literary and challenging of the two works; but it's probably as likely to drive Brown fans toward softer crime fiction as it is to draw them deeper into Connolly's creepy rabbit hole of the soul. | July 2005


Ali Karim is an industrial chemist, freelance journalist and book reviewer living in England. In addition to being a January Magazine contributor, he's also the assistant editor of the e-zine Shots and writes for both Deadly Pleasures and Crime Spree. An associate member of the British Crime Writers Association and the International Thriller Writers Association, Karim is currently working on a novel.