- The Dirty South, by John Connolly. Hachette. $32.99.
John Connolly's The Dirty South is a crime novel that provides many hours of immersion in corruption, murder, and flawed people trying to do something worthwhile, or at least to avoid the very worst choices, and it makes for a great read.
Many will be familiar with the Irish novelist's American detective, Charlie Parker, who first appeared in Every Dead Thing in the late 1990s. The new novel takes us back to the time just after Parker's family is murdered. He is trying to find the killer, travelling the United States in pursuit of crimes that bear some resemblance to the method of the murderer. This leads him to a run-down town in Arkansas.
As Parker allows himself to be drawn into the investigation of the murders of young African-American women, he finds a society riddled with corruption, abuse and racism, desperately trying to attract new money and investment from a company considering various options for its new site. Some locals do not want the murder investigations to make the company uneasy, and will do anything to kick away the problem. Literally, in one case, but I'll leave the reader to discover that stomach-churning detail.
Connolly writes beautifully, dipping in and out of tough-talking dialogue and more lyrical passages. He can also be funny, something not so often remarked upon. In the poverty of the area, one family controls many of the businesses that do exist, and influences the election of public officials in the time-honoured American tradition. The drug industry is also thriving in the impoverished town.
Parker's eventual willingness to help with the investigation of the murdered young women wins him few friends in the community; even some of the police he is working with resent his presence. He is a Northerner with no local ties (and he is not out to make money). The identity of the murderer gradually becomes more easy to guess, but the investigation itself is fascinating, including enough twists and surprises, and the town looms throughout as a kind of multi-headed monster.
There is a resolution of sorts at the novel's end, but one important question is left unanswered. In an atmosphere of such corruption, a totally clean solution would be unrealistic.
John Connolly is a fine novelist, and in The Dirty South he creates a vivid world into which readers can enter fully. The strength of his writing sometimes engenders indignation and even anger, alongside the more basic interest in the exposure of the murderer. The Charlie Parker series continues to enthral, even as it approaches a score of novels.
- Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier