John Connolly’s private eye Charlie Parker rarely ventures south of the Mason Dixon line; his natural habitat is the brooding forest wilderness of Maine, a place where he communes with ghosts older than those of his murdered wife and daughter. As the name suggests, The Dirty South, his 18th case, sees him in Arkansas. The books begins and ends in the present day, but the greater part of the action takes place in 1997. The state’s former Governor and Attorney General has gone on to greater things, but his elevation has brought little in the way of material benefits to the small town of Cargill.
Parker is still hunting the man who brutalised and then murdered his family and, thanks to former colleagues on the NYPD, he has a file on a girl murdered near Cargill, the manner of her death – and that of two others – give him cause to believe that her killer may be of interest to him. At this point, Connolly has a little fun with what might be called the In The Heat Of The Night trope. OK, so Parker isn’t black, but he is a stranger in town, asking questions. He is not inclined to say much about who he is and what his intentions are so he gets to spend a night in the town’s jail. While he is under lock and key, the body of another missing girl is found – horribly brutalised and left in woodland on the edge of the Ouachita mountains.
Parker’s back story is determined by a police civilian clerk making a call to New York:
“She picked up and listened as the caller identified himself. She wrote the name CHARLIE PARKER in block capitals across the top of a fresh page, and began taking notes.
‘Christ,’ she thought, as the lines began to fill with her handwriting, ‘Kel and the chief need to get back here, and fast. They need to let this man out of his cage before he has a mind to break out of it himself.’”
arker is given an apology, and asked to help with the hunt for Donna Lee Kernigan’s killer. He soon learns that the Jurel Cade, a special investigator for Burden County, has been involved in the investigations – or lack thereof – into the earlier deaths. The Cade family are rich, influential and undoubtedly corrupt. They have also managed to entice Kovas, a massive defence procurement company, to build a plant in the vicinity, a deal which will put food on tables, dollars in wallets and hope in hearts for the long neglected locals. A few murdered black girls mustn’t be allowed to embarrass the PR machine that deals with the Kovas public image.
This is a very different Charlie Parker novel. The only supernatural element comes when Parker communes with his daughter who may be dead in physical terms, but is very much alive in his heart, mind and soul. The unspeakably malign villains of previous novels, all of whom were, in some way, connected with the paranormal, are absent. The disfunctional Cade family, and the malign shadow of serial child abuser Hollis Ward are bad enough, but they are flesh and blood. We do, happily for their fan club, have a brief appearance from Louis and Angel. They are as potent a force as ever, but Angel’s possibly terminal illness is many years away.
onnolly writes like an angel, and there is never a dead sentence, nor a misplaced word. Occasionally, within the carnage, there is a wisecrack, or a sharp line which sticks in the memory:
“The radio was playing in Rhinehart’s back office: KKPT out of Little Rock, one of only two classic rock stations the device was able to pick up. Nobody was permitted to change the station for fear that it might never be located again, thereby leaving Rhinehart to subsist on a diet of Christian Contemporary Gospel, and Regional Mexican, until he eventually blew his brains out.”
If ever we needed an absorbing and substantial read to distract us from our nightmare, it is now. The Dirty South is published by Hodder and Stoughton and is out on 16th April. Buy it, blag it or borrow it – but don’t ignore it. It is a brilliant read which will provide a few hours of enchantment away from the miserable present.
More Fully Booked musings on John Connolly and Charlie Parker are available here.