The Reapers, by John Connolly

Who assassinates the assassins? An old friend returns to look for the answer
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For many years, ironclad rules demarcated crime-fiction genres. There was the hardboiled novel, usually American, where damaged protagonists moved though a minatory world shot though with sexual betrayal. There was the "cosy", usually British, where the landscape was manicured, violent death offstage and the status quo always reasserted. And there was the novel of horror, where the bloodletting assumed operatic proportions.

These days, many crime writers prefer to stuff various ingredients into the blender. While John Connolly will never write a novel utilising the tropes of the "cosy", the dividing line for him between the hardboiled novel and horror epic is well-nigh invisible. No one could pick up a Connolly novel expecting a genteel read: The Reapers brandishes a scythe on the jacket, with the strapline "Blood Will Flow". But, as ever with Connolly, the macabre narrative is couched in prose that is often allusive and poetic a combination far more destabilising for the reader, wrong-footing us before that moment when all the stops are pulled out.

The eponymous "reapers", Louis and Angel, are highly efficient assassins. Their targets include a Russian people-trafficker. Louis, however, finds he no longer has the stomach for his grim work, and retires to a less sanguinary profession, property owner, though the fear of his former career coming back to haunt him is permanent. Inevitably, Louis's worst fears come true. After some unpleasant warnings, he realises that his own death (and that of Angel) beckons at the hands of another ex-reaper called Bliss. It's imperative that they discover the clandestine figure behind this murderous assignment... but before they do, the duo disappears.

On their trail is a friend, private eye Charlie "Bird" Parker. Charlie himself is a killer of biblical proportions a potential reaper himself. Connolly aficionados will be cheered by the appearance of this much-loved protagonist, though here Parker has a key but smaller role. Refreshingly, Connolly has always resisted repeating himself, and the plot trajectory is strikingly innovative. Except, that is, for a transparent attempt to ensure that his ruthless protagonists are sympathetic and human, via a standard thriller ruse: make the opponents of your murderous heroes far nastier than them.

But we can easily forgive Connolly this slide into an orthodox device. The Reapers affords unusually bracing doses of Stygian delights.