[At The Edge of the Universe, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
The Burning Soul, by John Connolly, is an autumnal book, reminding us that winter is coming, a time when we will be more in darkness than light. Surprisingly, given the moody, atmospheric writing, the thriller aspect of the story is grounded in everyday reality, with few supernatural elements — in fact, only a few ghosts haunt this book, and one ghost is missing, its absence a shock.
Charlie Parker is a private investigator. He is a man whose wife and young daughter were taken from him by a serial killer, and a combatant in an eternal war, the shape of which he is only beginning to see. Parker confronts garden-variety human evil in The Burning Soul. In the small town of Pastor’s Bay, Maine, a fourteen year old girl, Anna Kore, has gone missing. The unspoken truth about child abductions is that the longer they go on, the worse the outcome is likely to be, but the police have no leads. Parker is called in by an attorney he does work for, not to search for the missing girl, but to help another of her clients. The man has a terrible secret in his past, one that would make him an instant suspect in the child abduction. He has changed his identity, but someone has found out, and is sending him taunting messages. Either this is a prelude to blackmail, or someone is framing him for the disappearance of Anna.
It is difficult to see the connection between a missing girl in Maine and the crumbling empire of a Boston crime boss, but The Burning Soul spends a good deal of time with Martin Dempsey and Francis Ryan, two minions of Tommy Morris. Morris was once on top of the Boston gangs, but things have gone wrong for him over the past few years. Competitors at first nibbled at the edges of his turf; now they are tearing out bloody chunks of it. Other crime bosses are discussing having Morris killed, and the FBI is hovering nearby like a flock of vultures, hoping to get Morris to turn. Dempsey and Ryan are unlikeable and frightening at first, but as their story progresses, we begin to see their loyalty and even a kind of twisted nobility about them. Halfway into the book, Connolly reveals the connection between Morris’s story and Anna’s.
It wouldn’t be a Parker book without Louis and Angel, his two deadly friends from New York City, and they do make an appearance here. Connolly often amuses himself and us by developing an interesting character from whatever town Parker is visiting, and this time it’s the owner/barista of the coffee house in Pastor’s Bay. Connolly does a nice job of the double-twist ending. You think you see the ending, and you have—one of them, but then there’s a second one coming. For instance, it does seem for quite a while like the missing girl is really not that important to anyone, not even Connolly, but he sets us straight at the end.
The surface story of The Burning Soul, while it held my interest, wasn’t the most powerful thing in this book. Connolly uses winter imagery and evocative names (“Kore” is the Greek name of the character in the Persephone myth), to create a growing sense of foreboding. He uses shifting points of view masterfully, revealing character and giving out information without making Parker seem stupid or slow on the uptake. It also allows for moments like this, as Aimee Price, the attorney, stands by her office window waiting for Parker to arrive:
“A shape passed across the window, and a shadow briefly entered the room, moving across her body before departing. She heard the beating of its wings and could almost feel the touch of feathers against her. She watched as the raven settled on a branch of the birch tree that overhung the small parking lot. Ravens unsettled her. It was the darkness of them, and their intelligence, the way in which they would lead wolves and dogs to prey. They were apostate birds: it was their instinct to betray to the pack the presence of the vulnerable.”
Connolly finds new ways to describe things, creating the image without exhaustive detail, such as when he write“The Harveys had provided a pot of tea, served on a silver tray with china cups and the kind of dainty cookies that small girls fed dolls at parties.”
The crime-boss storyline did make me think I had wandered into Mystic River territory for awhile, but Connolly has a different story to tell, and different points to make, and the end of the crime-boss story is not the end of the book.
Connolly mixes dry social commentary on the American experience, mythology, crime lore, ghost stories and fairy tales with glistening prose to create a reading experience that works on more levels than the story on the surface. The Burning Soul is a solid entry in the CHARLIE PARKER series. On the continuum, it is less supernatural, but clearly Connolly is setting up a confrontation with Parker’s inhuman adversaries. It’s dark, and somber, and a good autumn read.