Fans of the series can skip this paragraph. Charlie Parker is private eye based in Portland, Maine. His life has been shaped by the savage murder of his wife and daughter some years earlier, and he is – literally – haunted by the spirit of the dead daughter Jennifer. His cases frequently involve contact with people who are not actually spirits but although they have human shape, they are not entirely of this world. Long standing members of the dramatis personnae of the novels include Louis – an African American assassin, very loyal to Parker, and his personal and professional partner Angel, a skillful thief and locksmith who is recovering slowly from cancer. For more on Charlie Parker, click this link.
Parker takes something of a back seat in this novel (which is the 20th in a magnificent series) as Louis & Angel take centre stage. The first backdrop to this stage is Amsterdam, where a criminal ‘fixer’ called De Jaager goes to an address he uses as a safe house to meet three of his colleagues. He finds one of them, a man called Paulus, shot dead, while the two women, Anouk and Liesl, have been tied up. In control of the house are two Serbian gangsters, Radovan and Spiridon Vuksan. They have come to avenge the death – in which De Jaager was complicit – of one of their acquaintances, who was nicknamed Timmerman (Timber Man) for his love of crucifying his victims on wooden beams. What follows is not for the faint of heart, but sets up a terrific revenge plot.
At this point it is essential to replay what author John Connolly tells us about modern Serbia. Those with a strong stomach can find plenty on the internet and in books about the atrocities committed by Serbians against Bosnian Muslims – and others – in the brutal wars which erupted after the death of President Tito, the communist strongman who had kept the historical enemies – Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia – from each others’ throats between 1945 and 1980. Connolly paints a picture of a state where, despite former leaders like Milošević, Karadžić and Mladić being brought to justice by war crimes courts, Serbia is still largely run by career criminals who, while they may wear suits rather than Kevlar vests, are at the centre of a huge web of international crime which ranges from human trafficking to the drug trade.
I am guessing that John Connolly might not be on the top table of any future festival of crime fiction in Belgrade, but no matter – we have a seriously good story on our hands. Louis, for a variety of reasons, owes De Jaager, and when news reaches him of the Dutchman’s death he prepares to fly to Europe with the physically fragile Angel, but he is also aware that key USA figures inside The White House and the CIA would not be too dismayed were the Vuksan brothers to come to a sticky end.
With Parker otherwise engaged back in Maine, the supernatural element is largely absent here, as Louis and Angel don’t operate on the same psychic wavelength as their buddy. Largely absent, but not totally. Spiridon Vuksan has a murderous little friend called Zorya. She looks, at first glance, like a little girl, but on closer inspection she is a woman, and not a young one. She reminded me of the malevolent red-hooded little figure in Don’t Look Now – and we all know how that ended. Zorya is, as far as her human form goes, one of the Vlachs people, an ethnic group from the southern Balkans. She is also a strigoi. in Romanian mythology they are troubled spirits that are said to have risen from the grave. They are attributed with the abilities to transform into an animal, become invisible, and to gain vitality from the blood of their victims. Her fate is not in the hands of Louis and Angel, however, but governed by the spirit of Jennifer Parker who, once a victim, is now distinctly menacing.
John Connolly is an inspired storyteller, and if this novel doesn’t play merry hell with your heartbeat, then you may need medical attention. The Nameless Ones is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is out now.