A guide to John Connolly’s Charlie Parker

Image (c) Mark CondrenCharlie Parker was introduced to the crime fiction world in May 1999 with Every Dead Thing. It won a Shamus Award for best debut novel, and was also the LA Times Book of the Year. Parker is the creation of John Connolly, a Dublin-based author who was once a journalist for The Irish Times. The character is easily one of our favourites in the crime genre, even though the books often detour into the supernatural. So, we decided to put together this guide to the fictional life and times of Charlie Parker…

Now a tough private detective, Parker was once a cop with the NYPD. The books are peopled with genuinely mean human criminal types, but Connolly introduces supernatural foes in the novels as well. Yet he never uses the paranormal to explain away loopholes in the plot. There aren’t any, and the Charlie Parker books all offer solid and original mysteries. He is a PI, after all.

Parker’s bloodstained past has turned him into a man for whom evil is not just a philosophical concept, but a palpable presence. As he himself says, “I have learned to embrace the dead and they, in their turn, have found a way to reach out to me.”

Some of Connolly’s malign forces sometimes have more than a whiff of David Cronenberg’s Body Horror about them, while at other times there’s more than a hint of the ghost stories of the great English writer MR James. He seems to share that writer’s fascination with arachnid horrors that scuttle around in the dark with clicking legs. The settings are generally – but not exclusively – the bleak and dark forests of Maine, and its isolated and introspective small communities.

Every Dead ThingEvery Dead Thing (1999)
In the first book, Parker is still working for the NYPD. Returning home after several drinks too many he finds the bodies of his wife Susan and daughter Jennifer. They have been blinded, and then hacked to death. Racked with guilt over his drunken failure to prevent the slaughter, he leaves his job. While making himself available for private work, he takes on a missing person case. In his heart and soul, however, he has only one thing on his mind: retribution. His search for the killer who slew his family – a mysterious entity known as The Traveling Man – takes him far away from the chills of Maine to the haunted swamps of Louisiana. We get to meet Angel and Louis, who appear later in the series, and there is a violent and cathartic conclusion to Parker’s first quest.

dark-hollowDark Hollow (2000)
Parker has kissed New York goodbye and retreated to a wintry Maine where he is both hiding from the past, and trying to earn an honest living as a PI. He gets drawn into an investigation of a double murder which has echoes of his own recent tragedy. What starts out as a relatively straightforward job – collecting some child support money from an abusive and absent husband – goes downhill fast. The case involves a new double murder and a dreadful mass killing going back decades. As in Every Dead Thing, we have descriptions of the action which alternate between Parker’s voice and a third person narrative. We also meet a memorably sinister and evil adversary who is even the subject of a nursery rhyme: ‘Caleb Kyle, Caleb Kyle/When you see him run a mile.’

TheKillingKind200The Killing Kind (2001)
This is one of Connolly’s most powerful stories. As with the fate of The Donner Party in 1846-47, the template of a group of settlers heading into the unknown only to meet catastrophe is almost a metaphor for America itself. While setting out to investigate the unlikely suicide of a well-connected young woman, Parker is drawn to the mysterious disappearance of the Aroostook Baptists, a religious community who disappeared in northern forests of Maine four decades earlier. Here we have the chilling introduction of a man with a curiously childish name – Mr Pudd. Forget the avuncular sound. Mr Pudd is capable of true evil, and with his pet spiders he is genuinely a creature of nightmares.Buy now on Amazon

white-roadThe White Road (2002)
Charlie Parker heads south again to investigate South Carolina’s worst nightmare. The daughter of one of the oldest and wealthiest white families in the state has been murdered. And the apparent killer? A young black man called Atys Jones. This is not the Deep South of white colonial mansions and genteel aristocratic folk with impeccable manners. Instead there is an air of resentment and bitterness, of decades of grudges and rancour, that is carried like a bad smell on the breeze. To add to Parker’s problems, a man who has blighted his life beyond redemption – the Reverend Aaron Faulkner – is petitioning for a review of his jail sentence, with a strong chance of success. With his new partner Rachel pregnant with their child, Parker fights for sanity and survival in both southern badlands and northern forests.
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The_Black_AngelUKThe Black Angel (2005)
When a young black woman is snatched from the streets near her New York home nobody is terribly bothered, least of all the NYPD. But someone has made a mistake. A terrible mistake. The young woman is ‘blood’ with the frightening Louis. Louis is not a supernatural being who can walk through walls. When Parker needs physical help, he usually turns to Louis and Angel. Louis is a tall, bald black man with a carefully trimmed beard, turning to grey. He is also an implacable killer, who wears $2000 suits. Angel is a shambolic and pear-shaped crook who could wear a $2000 suit and make it look like a potato sack. Improbably, the two are lovers, but they provide a devastating go-to rescue team when Parker is in trouble. The search for Louis’ missing cousin lays bare old wounds which involve atrocities dating back to World War II and, more tellingly, a potent artifact which has brought death and destruction upon those who have sought it.
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The UnquietThe Unquiet (2007)
This focuses on Parker’s investigation into a child abuse scandal, but also introduces a rather unpleasant group of death-watchers called The Hollow Men. The reputation of a child psychiatrist is coming under scrutiny for suspected child abuse. When Daniel Clay’s daughter begins to receive unwelcome attention from a bereaved father, Merrick, who holds Clay responsible for his daughter’s death, she hires Parker to intervene. Connolly’s prose here is typically sonorous, even biblical at times. The constant and recurring theme in this, as in all the stories, is that of angels. These are not the beatific, pious creatures of a Renaissance painting, but much more formidable entities. At best, they are morally neutral, but possess tremendous power and resilience. At their worst, they are nasty, leathery things that smell of death.
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The ReapersThe Reapers (2008)
Parker’s comrades Louis and Angel take centre stage in The Reapers. In many of the books, the wise-cracking and gritty dialogue between Charlie, Angel and Louis provides a sharp contrast to the prevailing atmosphere of dark things just around the corner. Things are slightly different here. Louis, very much the untouchable and remorseless hard man in most of his appearances, becomes the hunter turned prey. The Reapers are an elite band of killers, of which Louis himself was once a member. Now he is the focus of their attention, and is the target of their fearsome leader, Bliss. In a smart reversal of the normal roles, it’s Parker who heads up the eventual rescue mission to save the lives, and souls, of his friends.
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thelovers200The Lovers (2009)
CharlieParker is forced by events to re-examine his own troubled past while being stalked by a pair of sweethearts for whom death presents no kind of barrier. Charlie has lost his investigator’s licence and is back working behind the bar. Events draw him into trying to discover the truth about his own father – like him, a cop – and the man’s suicide following the tragic shooting of a pair of teenagers. As well as being a straightforward mystery, the book begins to shed light on one of the essential enigmas about Charlie Parker – the reasons for his seeming ability to commune with the spirit world. Is this a gift or a curse? You are left to come to you own conclusions.
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The WhisperersThe Whisperers (2010)
With a challenging mixture of the contemporary (human trafficking) and the ancient (a shadowy man called Herod, after the New Testament king), Charlie has to grit his teeth and combine forces with one of his old foes, The Collector. Is the Collector a real man? Might he be from the other side? There is little ambiguity about the supernatural with Charlie. He believes in it, but it is up to us as readers to decide how far we’ll be drawn in. “I knew of the existence of a form of evil that was beyond human capacities, the wellspring from which all other evil sipped,” explains Parker. The Dark Side is as real to him as the the messages he receives from his dead daughter, written in the condensation on a window or in the dust on the attic floor.
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The Burning SoulThe Burning Soul (2011)
Despite the title, Parker is faced with a relatively earthbound mystery. A teenage girl goes missing from a remote Maine village called Pastor’s Bay. In the same village lives a child killer – someone who as a child killed another one – under a new identity. Coincidence? The tale has chilling echoes of Britain’s infamous Jamie Bulger murder case, where a toddler was killed by two young boys who were convicted, served a prison terms, but then released with changed names and identities. Parker is hired by his lawyer friend, Aimee Price, to investigate why Randall Haight’s new identity and anonymity has been breached. There is a memorable opening chapter featuring some very scary ravens, and their looming menace serves as a metaphor for the rest of the book. Parker must negotiate his way through a minefield of obstacles including the FBI, crooked cops and Boston mobsters.
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wrathofangels200The Wrath of Angels (2012)
A plane crashes in the forests of Northern Maine. When a pair of woodsmen discover the wreckage, they realise that there is something sinister about the crash site. Years later, when both are on their death beds, they whisper hints about their fears. Charlie Parker is drawn into the mystery, and in doing so he is faced with two of his most implacable enemies. One is the repulsive Brightwell, who seems to have been reborn as a homicidal child with a fast developing goitre and a mouth like a lamprey. The other is the seasoned killer known only as The Collector. The Collector proves to be one of the Parker’s deadliest foes. He is a lean, mean, greasy-haired killing machine. And he stinks of cheap tobacco.
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The Wolf in Winter, John ConnollyThe Wolf in Winter (2014)
In the most recent Charlie Parker novel, we have a remote Maine community called Prosperous that can trace its roots to a religious movement founded in 18th century England. There is a medieval church that has been uprooted and rebuilt in America, stone by stone. We have a settlement where the town Selectmen are locked into an ancient and evil conspiracy. And all of this is uncovered by Parker when he looks into the death of a homeless man called Jude who was one of Parker’s clients. For the full review, click here.
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More Charlie Parker…
In 2013 Charlie Parker was admitted to an exclusive  club. The writers at Crime Fiction Lover chose him to appear among the 12 best private detectives of all time, and you can read his PI Case file here. If the 12 novels in our guide aren’t quite enough, you’ll also find Parker in a novella entitled The Reflecting Eye, which can be find in a 2004 collection of short stories by John Connolly called Nocturnes. So far, you won’t be able to see Charlie Parker appearing in any films or television series. Despite occasional rumours on the topic, the rights remain firmly with the author at the moment. However, his short story The New Daughter – also in Nocturnes – was adapted for the big screen and starred Kevin Costner.

If you’ve read The Wolf in Winter, you’ll know it ends with an enormous cliff-hanger, and indeed Connolly has at least one more Charlie Parker novel planned. He ain’t done with Parker yet, and neither are we…

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