It has taken four attempts, but now I am convinced that John Connolly is the real thing, a writer of extraordinary talent and one who will have you humming the tunes to his metaphysical imagery. Well, almost. This is the fourth in the Charlie `Bird' Parker series (following Every Dead Thing, Dark Hollow and The Killing Kind) and he just gets better and better with each offering, so much so that I have elevated Connolly to one of my most enjoyable authors in my own little library of personal favourites.
If only there wasn't so much killing! Just as in the three previous outings, we have central character and private investigator Parker, his wonderful back-up crew Louis and Angel, and his girlfriend Rachel. Apart from them, almost everyone else dies - and there are a lot of others! Parker's not very often directly responsible, but as seems to be the trend in this series, death follows him around every single corner and although the majority of the victims are baddies, I am beginning to find this widespread carnage just a little wearisome. But there are so many pleasures within the pages of this book that many readers won't mind the violence at all, for Connolly's writing is for the most part wonderfully stylish, his sense of imagery masterful and his research into his given subjects - be they people, locations or wildlife - is simply awesome.
This is Connolly's tightest and most coherent novel yet, with an unwavering plot-line that for once does not include any mafia figures - possibly because he killed them all off in the previous three novels, I guess. We learn, at last, of the makings of Louis and Angel many years before, the better to understand what makes them who they are today. Bird has temporarily moved into new territory in the shape of South Carolina, and initially aims to help out an old lawyer buddy who is representing a young black man accused of murdering the attractive daughter of a very wealthy white local tycoon, in an environment that even today makes it very difficult for black people to obtain legal justice in a highly prejudiced society which still harbours associations with the Ku Klux Klan. It's just the tip of the iceberg however, because there's bad blood running between the families of both the victim and the accused that dates back generations, and eventually Bird finds that there are some very dark cover-ups, some in the present and some in the past, that he needs to unearth before he can get to the root of what's going on. To add a little spice to the mix, it emerges that the Reverend Faulkner is still alive and able to exert deadly influence even from his prison cell, an elderly but highly evil man who some of us might have thought had died at the end of The Killing Kind but who has returned to seek vengeance on Bird for his sins.
One of the trademarks of the Bird series has been his occasional and usually involuntary ability to communicate with the dead. This theme is taken to a deeper level in The White Road, and to an extent it serves to explain the reasons for what has gone on before, in Maine and in New Orleans, and although there are thankfully far fewer `please buy my previous book' references in the story this time, the subtlety of their mentionings serves to better link the four tales together. I found this a most welcome change. What I don't want Connolly to change though is his prose, which enables him to stand tall among his peers, and if I may I would like to quote from this novel just so that the unfamiliar can sample a taste of this very creative author's imagination:-
"Around the trunk, a vine weaves. Its leaves are broad, and from each node springs a cluster of small green flowers. The flowers smell as if they are decomposing, festering, and in daylight they are black with flies drawn by the stench. This is Smilax herbacea, the carrion flower. There is not another one like it for a hundred miles in any direction. Like the black oak itself, it is alone of its kind. Here, in Ada's Field, the two entities co-exist, parasite and saprophyte: the one fuelled by the lifeblood of the tree, the other drawing its existence from the lost and the dead.
"And the song the wind sings in its branches is one of misery and regret, of pain and passing. It calls over untilled fields and one-room shacks, across acres of corn and mists of cotton. It calls to the living and the dead, and old ghosts linger in its shade.
"Now there are lights on the horizon and cars on the road. It is July 17, 1964 and they are coming. They are coming to see the burning man."
If you enjoy classical writing successfully married to a contemporary style, then you will love The White Road and its predecessors in the Bird Series. Absolutely recommended.