John Connolly’s latest novel, A Book Of Bones, features some terrifically chilling settings. In it, dead bodies turn up in various places all across England, from an ancient church on a lonely moor to the site of a 1,000-year-old tree.
All of the spooky locations in the book are real. Connolly is an author who absolutely has to visit the places he writes about. Which means he went driving around England with research books in the back of his car, stopping at many fascinating sites.
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“I stayed at inns, and poked around in old religious sites. And it was a lot of choosing which ones were interesting. Some places I went and found their history wasn’t as interesting as I thought. Or were in the middle of a town, that’s not going to work (for the book)!” says Connolly, 51.
“I wanted places that were distinct, and looked different. I’ve never had a supernatural experience, and I’m not particularly sensitive. But sometimes, you’re walking somewhere like the Wittenham Clumps, this old Iron Age fortress where they did human sacrifices before abandoning it, there is an eerieness to this place! And I remember thinking there, I would not be walking here at night!”
The author was recently in Malaysia on a book tour. In person, Connolly is jovial and good-natured, constantly making witty and self-deprecating jokes. He’s also very polite, greeting everyone he meets with a large smile.
Born in Dublin, Connolly studied English in famed Trinity College and journalism at Dublin City University. Paying the usual struggling writer’s dues, he worked many jobs before becoming an author, including as a barman, waiter and local government official.
After working as a journalist for five years (because it’s a job that paid him to write, not because it was a calling, it seems), he did what many journalists do and wrote a fiction book. Unlike most such attempts, though, Connolly’s was a decided success when it was published in 1999: Every Dead Thing was nominated for a Bram Stoker award, named a Los Angeles Times book of the year, and won the Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel in 2000 (Connolly was the first non-American author to win at the time).
Every Dead Thing introduced readers to Charlie Parker, a former New York City police officer hunting the killer of his wife and daughter. What set this story apart from your run-of-the-mill tough American PI on a case is how Parker is pushed into the realm of the supernatural, to a world where the ghosts of the dead haunt the living. All his subsequent adventures have continued to feature supernatural elements in them.
Landscapes That Feel
According to Connolly, dark forces are indeed afoot in A Book Of Bones, the 18th volume in the Parker series (yes, you read that right, the 18th!). For this book, Connolly says he was inspired by “psychogeography”, which is the theory that geographical locations can have effects on the behaviour and emotions of individuals.
“Human beings leave marks on the landscape, and not just physical ones. There is a process of layering: for example, you may have a modern shopping mall over older shophouses, or one temple is built over another. I think people in Malaysia would be able to understand that!
“Psychogeography would say, this layering is very important, it would add a kind of resonance to our society,” Connolly says. “And I wanted to write a book about the idea that places hold memory.”
(Being featured in the book has also apparently helped the real life places, by the way; Connolly recei-ved a letter from the mayor of Fairfax, England, saying visits to a particular church in the town had gone up after being mentioned in the novel!)
In A Book Of Bones, a group of villains are after the “Fractured Atlas”, an ancient artifact said to carry unbelievable power.
To stop them, Parker embarks on a journey that takes him from the Mexican border to the canals of Amsterdam and the woods of England.
For strange things are happening in England: Bodies are turning up in strange places; false clues are planted to make it look like the murders are being committed by Muslim terrorists; and a killer, motivated by his belief in ancient gods, is on the loose.
Also on the hunt are a squad of English police officers – a bit of a departure from the largely Parker-centric books in the series.
Asked if we would be perhaps be seeing spin-offs involving these characters in the future, Connolly says no.
“With longer novels, you can experiment a bit more. And here, I could try a different voice. These people speak in a different way, their interactions are different. I really liked them: Hynes (one of the British cops), in particular was fun to write. Even my editor wondered if we would be getting a series from them. But I don’t think a spin-off is likely to happen,” Connolly says.
Experiments In Writing
A Book Of Bones is also the ending of a narrative arc that started six books ago, in The Wolf Of Winter (2014). In that book, Parker finds himself under threat in a mysteriously successful small American town that contain the ruins of an ancient church, transported stone by stone from England centuries earlier by the town founders. There’s that English connection.
The next book, Connolly says, will be The Dirty South, due out next year. Events in it take take place before the first book in his series, making it a prequel of sorts – “It essentially comes full circle.”
“Now, I would like to say when I started, I was that smart. But when I wrote The Wolf In Winter, I thought I’m not t sure what I’m doing here. And it was only gradually over the six books when I could see that I could maybe bring it back to the beginning,” Connolly says.
The Dirty South will have one marked difference from the rest of the Parker series: it will not contain any elements of the supernatural.
“Everything should be an experiment. If I did have a worry, it’s if I was removing a texture from the book that makes them distinctive? Are you now making them just another crime novel?
“But I guess what I’m hoping is that the reader’s memory of what’s going to come after all this colours the experiment,” Connolly says.
“The book relies a lot on everything that comes after it,” he explains, referring to the rest of the Parker books.
It may seem quite a gamble, but Connolly is accustomed to branching out of literary niches.
He’s done so before, writing a children’s supernatural trilogy (the Samuel Johnson series), a young adult book (The Book Of Lost Things in 2006) and with partner Jennifer Ridyard, a YA sci-fi series (The Chronicles Of The Invaders) because for him, it is always important to try something new.
But there’s new and then there’s completely out of left field. Eye-brows were raised pretty high a few years ago when Connolly, renowned thriller writer, announced his next project would be He (2017), the story of American comedian Stan Laurel.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made more than 100 movies together during the early classical Hollywood era of American cinema from the 1920s to the 1940s and are widely regarded as the greatest comedic duo in film history.
Why would Connolly turn to someone who seems very far from Charlier Parker?
According to Connolly, however, the story was a natural draw as it carries themes of male friendship, something crucial to the Parker stories.
“I realised that no one had ever written about the emotional connection between Laurel and Hardy, or about them in the context of male companionship and friendship. Men, we are not good at expressing emotion. And yet, there won’t be a man reading a newspaper who doesn’t have a friendship who doesn’t go back to school, or college, or the first job,” Connolly says.
“And that friendship will probably continue, with all it’s ups and downs, until one of them dies. And when that happens, the one left behind will feel intensely bereaved! Because male friendships last longer than marriages!”
Well, OK, then. And if you’re wondering why this Irishman wrote an American detective story to begin with, well, Connolly has famously said he wasn’t interested in “engaging with the nature of Irishness”. He had also worked in the United States when he was younger and had liked it. And, as with many writers of detective stories and police procedural the world over, Connolly’s influences tend to be the American authors who are masters of the genre, like Ross Macdonald, Ed McBain and James Lee Burke (who he comes closest to in style).
Trying Other Media
What’s next for Connolly? Another novel, this time about Angel and Louis, two popular characters from the Charlie Parker stories. According to him, part of the novel would be set in Malaysia, which partly explains why he’s here (yay)! The book, however, will probably not have any supernatural elements (boo).
There has been a lot of talk that Connolly’s children’s books were going to be adapted into movies; according to Connolly, however, the people interested in the project have left, and so it will probably not continue. A pilot for a Charlie Parker TV show is being shopped around, however, which he is excited about, and Connolly has been contracted to write a script for his YA fiction book, The Book Of Lost Things.
“I’m very excited about it, because I’ve never written a script before! And the company doing it is very serious about it.
“It will be a five-year process, because it’s going to be a mix of live action and animation. I’m kind of nervous about it!” the author says.
A scary task, perhaps – but once again, a chance to try something new.
“I was told once: I probably would be more successful if I had just written the Charlie Parker books. And in a sense, that person is right.
“If you write the same books every year, not deviating and confusing booksellers and antagonising readers, you will have a measure of success that’s different from the one that I have had.
“But I would have been incredibly frustrated as a writer,” Connolly says.
“I will want to write other things. I will always want to experiment. I think that everything should carry with it a risk of failure. Or else it just isn’t worth doing.”