The Black Angel, by John Connolly

Hell to pay on the mean streets of crime
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The forcefulness of John Connolly's thrillers has always had to do with the sense that they were as much about theology as forensic pathology. His ghost-driven detective, Charlie Parker, has found himself up against a variety of multiple killers, and has always had a sense that he was not seeing the whole battle. Connolly's villains - the Travelling Man, who turns living people into anatomical engravings, or Faulkner, the preacher who steals bones and skin to make books of the Apocalypse - have always been dark angels. In this fifth book, Parker finally finds himself up against the powers and principalities he has always, in truth, been fighting.

Connolly's books take place in a dark world of political corruption and religion acting as a mask for worse things, in which the only hope was moments of grace, love and laughter. The Black Angel returns Parker to the gloom that followed the slaughter of his first family. His new partner, Rachel, decides that she has had enough of the threatening world of shadows and that the father of her new child should quit it too. We are faced with the possibility that Parker's obsession with righting injustice is merely a pretext for a taste for killing.

The company he loyally keeps is not that of a virtuous man. The semi-retired hit-man Louis asks Parker for help when his junkie-whore cousin goes missing. Parker knows that keeping Louis and his pudgy lover, Angel, from murderously punishing all those who betrayed Alice is a lost hope, and still goes along for the ride. Connolly's sense of the world of low-rent pimps is just as intense and poetic as his excursions into the Gothic. He never imagines a shadow without luxuriating in the texture of its darkness.

Soon the trail leads them on from pimps to men who build sculpture from human bones and the collectors who traffic in them. By the time we have had described angels and demons, chandeliers and crosses pieced together from what we leave in the grave, we are shell-shocked to a point where the Believers only confirm our worst imaginings. With the Believers, Connolly departs the thriller for good and and moves smoothly into the world of horror, whether or not we accept that they are in truth fallen angels cast endlessly into mortal flesh.

The gross Brightwell and his master are searching for a silver statue that traps another of their kind; and for a defector, who seeks divine forgiveness in acts of human justice. They believe Parker is that being. Connolly's Grand Guignol takes us to a point where we are prepared to swallow this possibility and only in passing consider the rational interpretation: our narrator has toppled over the brink into his own madness.

There is a precision to the horrors in Connolly's books that make them one of the few sequences to have found anything interesting to say about serial killers since Thomas Harris. If what he ends up saying abandons the reasonable for the mythic, that is something which he has earned.

Roz Kaveney's 'From Alien to The Matrix' is published by IB Tauris

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