In the dark woods of Maine a tree gives up the ghost and topples to the ground. As its roots spring free of the cold earth a makeshift tomb is revealed. The occupant was a young woman. When the girl – for she was little more than that – is discovered, the police and the medical services enact their time-honoured rituals and discover that she died of natural causes not long after giving birth. But where is the child she bore? And why was a Star of David carved on the trunk of an adjacent tree? Portland lawyer Moxie Castin is not a particularly devout Jew, but he fears that the ancient symbol may signify something damaging, and he hires PI Charlie Parker to shadow the police enquiry and investigate the carving – and the melancholy discovery beneath it.
Those who are familiar with the world of Charlie Parker may, as they say, look away now. Or, at least, skip to the next paragraph. New readers expecting a reprise of the standard US gumshoe who is a hard drinking, wise-cracking, fast moving womaniser, will not find Parker ticking those boxes. He is a deeply reflective man who bears the scars of tragic events. The physical scars are deep enough, true, but the mental and spiritual damage is far more severe. Years before, his wife and daughter were butchered in front of him by a man-creature not entirely of this world. Now Parker is literally haunted by the shade of that daughter, Jennifer, although he has played the relationship game again, but unsuccessfully. He now has another daughter, Sam, who shares his ability to see things that more mundane folk would would say are “just not there.” Parker scratches a living as an investigator, helped by two colleagues, Louis and Angel. It has to be said that they are both criminals but, if there are such things as good criminals, then that is what they are.
The crumbling remains of the woman in the woods give up few clues, but Parker slowly pieces together the jigsaw. The picture that emerges is not one to grace the top of a festive biscuit tin, nor is it likely to be reproduced as a popular wall decoration. Karis Lamb has had the misfortune to be in a relationship with a disturbing and menacing man called Quayle. She fled the abusive relationship carrying not only his unborn child, but an antique book from Quayle’s collection. Remember the story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad? The network of safe houses which formed a chain of refuges for escaped slaves? Parker learns that a similar system exists to aid abused and battered women and that Karis Lamb used it in her flight from Quayle. As individuals who provided refuge for the women go missing, or are found dead, Parker realises that he is in a deadly race with Quayle to find the missing book – and Karis Lamb’s child.
In another life John Connolly would have been a poet. His prose is sonorous and powerful, and his insights into the world of Charie Parker – both the everyday things he sees with his waking eyes and the dark landscape of his dreams – are vivid and sometimes painful. Connolly’s villains – and there have been many during the course of the Charlie Parker series – are not just bad guys. They do dreadful things, certainly, but they even smell of the decaying depths of hell, and they often have powers that even a gunshot to the head from a .38 Special can hardly dent.
Connolly brings to the printed page monsters unrivalled in their depravity, and vileness unseen since the days when MR James created his dreadful beings that skipped, scraped, slithered and scrabbled into the terrified minds of the schoolboys for whom, it is said, he wrote the stories. Transpose these horrors into the modern world, and add all the ingredients of murder mysteries, police investigation and the nerve-jangling thriller and you have the distinctly uncomfortable – but wonderfully gripping – world of Charlie Parker. The Woman In The Woods is published by Hodder & Stoughton, and is out now.
An earlier Charlie Parker novel, Time of Torment, won our Best PI Novel Award in 2016.