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THE NAMELESS ONES . . . Between the covers

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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.

nameless046Parker 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.

POSSESSED . . .Between the covers

POSSESSED HEADER

Possessed coverPeter Laws introduced us to Matt Hunter in Purged (2017) and we learned that he is a former priest whose total loss of faith coincided with tragic personal events. Now, he lectures in the sociology of religion and belief systems, and has a reputation (one which does not sit lightly with him) for being the go-to guy when the police have a case which is ‘not dream’t of in our philosophy’.

When a good old fashioned milkman, driving his ecological sound electric milk float, makes an horrific discovery in a suburban greenhouse, the result is that the police have an apparently raving madman on their hands. He is emaciated, disheveled and both frightened and frightening. This creature from hell does, however, have a day job. Tom Riley is the chef at a local pub and has, apparently, a Shepherds’ Pie to die for. When the baffled police summon Matt Hunter to talk to this fellow he finds him manacled to a chair and spitting out Exorcist-style obscenities.

H redunter discovers that Riley is a devotee of a local church, one which, depending on your view might be termed either ‘charismatic’ or ‘a bunch of eyeball-rollers’. Things take a dramatic turn for the worse when Riley’s wife is discovered, horribly mutilated, in one of the customer chairs of her home hairdressing salon.

As the case begins to attract lurid national interest, Hunter is roped into a no-holds-barred reality TV show, to be one of the talking heads in an investigation into demonic possession. While stoutly sticking to his sceptical opinions Hunter is swept along in the flood-tide of the media frenzy, and comes face to face with an infamous American evangelist who makes a living from casting out demons. The TV company, cameras eagerly devouring every second of the interplay between the apparently tormented victims of demonic possession and their potential saviour, book a rural retreat for a blockbuster special which will see Good and Evil come face to face, interrupted only with tasteful ads from the show’s sponsors.

W redhat happens next is violent, bloody, improbable – but totally gripping. Of course, Matt Hunter survives to return to his delightful wife and children, but not before he is forced to question his firmly-held disbelief in ‘ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night.’

There are two interlinked paradoxes in Possessed. The first is that Matt Hunter is a disbeliever in all things paranormal and in any possibility that there are any beings or forces outside man’s own imagination and mental state. He is, however,the creation of an ordained church minister whose own sense of the spiritual life is, I assume, central to his faith. Secondly – and do read the afterword to Possessed which is separate from the usual authorial Oscars speech thanking all and sundry – behind all the comic book gore and satirical swipes at the grossness of TV reality shows, Laws makes a serious point about troubled people searching desperately for supernatural answers to problems which come from within themselves.

LawsLaws (right) doesn’t exactly play it for laughs, but amid the knockabout spookery and Hunter’s own predilection for making wisecracks, there is serious stuff going on. It is worth comparing Matt Hunter with another fictional investigator of strange things – Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins. Like the real life Peter Laws, Merrily Watkins is a priest. Like Matt Hunter, merrily doesn’t necessarily believe in the supernatural, but she is totally convinced that some folk do.

Possessed is evidence that Peter Laws goes from strength to strength as a story teller, and that his tales of Matt Hunter’s encounters with possible demons are cast iron certainties to be good reads. Possessed is published by Allison & Busby and is out now.

Read more about the previous Matt Hunter novels by clicking this link.

Allison

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