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The Black Angel, John Connolly
on 31 May 2005
After two sucessful but unspectacular deviations (2003's adequate supernatural thriller Bad Men, then Nocturnes, a collection of occasionally brilliant short stories), Connolly returns to the character who made his name, PI Charlie Parker. After stretching his literary muscles, growing within these other forms, does he return even stronger than before, as I'd thought he must? Rather disappointingly, I'm not sure.
A disappearance kicks off the events of The Black Angel. The disappearance of a young woman from the streets of New York (indeed, very much a young woman of the streets of New York). Those who've taken her think she has no one, think there is no one to care and no one who'll come. They're wrong. For the girl is blood to Louis, friend of Charlie Parker. Despite the wishes of Parker's partner Rachel, who wants stability and safety for their new daughter, he undertakes to help his friend follow the trail of the men who have taken his cousin, and who have silently been taking others also. As their violent search progresses through nests of pimps, whores and people of the street, it becomes clear that something far more sinister is going on. Something that has reverberations far beyond New York; something that leads to a slaughter at a motel in Mexico, an apartment decorated with statuettes formed of bone, a sacked French monastery, and a sinister ossuary in Eastern Europe. Parker's journey through these places leads him towards a group known as the Believers, the monstrous, corpulent demon Blackwell, and the prize they ultimately seek: the mythical Black Angel.
Ah, it's good to be back with Parker again. Angel and Louis, too: the sheer force of Louis's emotion is one of the most powerful and dangerous things about this book. Normally so...contained (if that's the right word), now there's a restrained and barbaric rage in him that's rather scary. Especially as in The Black Angel he steps incredibly close to the edge once or twice, and some might say he even falls off. The degree of his violence, probably unnecessary at times, makes you question his character in a rather alarming way. In this sense, The Black Angel is not a comfortable read, but it is not supposed to be. On one level, it is simply the inevitable melding of Gothic horror story and detective novel (more thriller, this time) that Connolly was always leaning towards, but on a deeper level it's a book about evil, darkness. Hell is formed in the minds of the corrupted, and they stalk above the soil not beneath; what havoc's within they wreak without, by their nature. What leads men into evil? What tempts them and corrupts them? Can evil have a benevolent cause, even if it's vengeance? Is it finite? Does evil exist because of man, or is humanity merely an outlet?
It's a scary, disturbing novel, especially towards the end when its dominant allele begins to show, when "horror" takes over. As a detective novel, it's less sucessful than his previous books, and that might be why I feel some small (very small, though) portion of disappointment. Because it seems more of a horror-thriller than a detective novel, its happenstances seem almost destined, predetermined, as if Parker is simply treading a laid-out course to an inevitable end.
Connolly is also not as good at depicting the street culture which takes up so much of the first half; he's far better when immersed in the esoterica of chandeliers constructed from bones, (as an example). It's not that his depiction of that culture is not good, it's just that he's so much more interesting, riveting and original, when he's giving the gothic background to his story, daubing pentacles on the floor of his story. Anyway, that's a minor thing. More important is the fact that this book is, well, a bit long. It's written brilliantly, with Connolly's usual lyric flare for the gothic macabre, but it's still too long by about 100 pages. Thus, it's not as quick and purely thrilling as The Killing Kind, and because it feels a little drawn-out it doesn't feel as beautifully twisted as The White Road. It's only when Connolly really gets into the Believers, Sedlec, and bones that the whole thing sparks with grim ancient gothic life. Oh, and the vampiric Brightwell, who is the most chilling fictional villain since Connolly's own Mr Pudd. He really does excel at creating these repellent, deformed villains that make the flesh creep. His representations of evil are inspiring, which is almost paradoxical. Their arcane originality certainly carries a good sense of the fascination that evil has for some.
Though it's a bit long, and though Connolly doesn't always dwell in the places he should, The Black Angel is an impressive, fascinating and thrilling book. It's revelations regarding Parker's nature mark it as a significant milestone in the series. It's almost a culmination of all the books so far. Indeed, Parker himself has come full circle: with a new partner and child as hostages to fortune once again, The Black Angel could perhaps provide Parker with another, darker, beginning.