Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Review - THE BURNING SOUL by John Connolly

By John Connolly, Hodder and Stoughton, 9780340993538

John Connolly is that rarity; a series author who is unafraid to take risks not only with his characters, but also his narrative voice. His lyrical and compellingly literary prose style – that nimbly and effortlessly breaks all the rules to switch between first and third in a way only James Lee Burke seems to have managed previously – has grown in leaps and bounds since his confident debut in EVERY DEAD THING, becoming unique and recognisable both within the genre and perhaps beyond. His peculiar obsessions – the nature of evil, the idea of an afterlife, the physical and mental embodiment of sin – have also marked him out as unique within a genre that can, all too easily, rely on easy tropes and generic shorthand to explore its themes. Even those ideas that seem familiar take on a unique and fresh aspect; Connolly's books demmand and maintain your attention.

While one might have expected Connolly to adhere to a more straightforwardly supernatural route following from the revelations that came to his ongoing protagonist, Charlie Parker, in THE LOVERS, the more overtly fantastical elements of THE BURNING SOUL feel toned down and held back in a way that suggests some characters may be haunted not by outside elements but by their own guilt and fear. Again, this is the hallmark of a Connolly novel: while he may have acknowledged the idea of some other realm of existence, it is all too often the more human incarnation of evil that provides the catalyst for his work.

The novel begins with Parker taking on the case of a man who once lived under another name. That man killed a black girl with the help of his best friend when all three were in their teens. Now living with a new identity and trying to build something that might be close to a worthwhile life, Randall Haight has been receiving threats from someone who seems to know his secret. And with a local girl missing, Haight is going to be suspect number one if anyone does hear a whisper of the boy he used to be.

The grey areas of morality have become Connolly’s playground, and here he asks the reader to consider a number of issues about responsibility of both of the perpetrators and the authorities, and whether someone found guilty of a crime as a child is capable of becoming an adult who contributes to society. There are no easy answers here and Connolly manages to explore sensitive issues without exploiting them or reducing them to a kind of one-dimensional melodrama, something that many lesser writers may have wound up doing.

Sins of the past and issues of identity play deeply into the narrative, and it seems that everyone has a secret to keep, maybe even Parker himself. The idea of the small town with skeletons buried under the streets (metaphorically and perhaps even physically) is nothing new in American literature, but here it serves Connolly’s intentions perfectly and allows him to slowly chip away at his characters to reveal surprising truths about what makes them tick.
On top of all the thematic depth, Connolly’s often-gothic narration is a joy to read. Unusually among thriller writers, his turn of phrase is often beautiful and evocative; a skill that he has developed and honed over his career. He should now one of the most lyrical of the modern crime writers – again, something he shares in common with Burke.

But unlike Burke, Connolly rarely lets his love of words interfere with the swiftness of his narrative, and there is a sense that every word has been carefully considered to build up not only atmosphere, but a riding sense of movement to the novel. And once the novel kicks into its final act, it becomes difficult to stop turning those pages as revelations come thick and fast and assumptions are confounded for both the characters and the reader. And while a few of the central twists might seem a little obvious in the cold light of day, Connolly is a skilled enough writer to make them feel fresh upon a first reading, caught up as you are in his narrative. Connolly is the perfect argument for the literate thriller. On the surface, his books are thrilling and gripping – forcing you turn these pages to find out what happens next. But beneath all of that, the construction and the engagement continues on a deeper level if you care to look for it. This is what makes him exciting and unique as a thriller writer, his insistence on giving his readers something deeper and more than they might expect.

THE BURNING SOUL is a brilliant, tense, literary thriller with just a hint of the supernatural, a uniquely Connolly-esque mix. It will reward long-time fans and recruit new ones, who will no doubt scurry to the backlist to discover what they’ve been missing for all this time.

Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland 10/01/11