A Game of Ghosts - John Connolly

A Game of Ghosts - John Connolly ****

The writing is as elegant in its creation of mood, and that mood remains quite sinister in John Connolly's 15th Charlie Parker thriller, but it does initially feel like not much has progressed this time in A Game of Ghosts. There certainly don't seem to be any great leaps towards a final endgame that seemed to be drawing closer in some of the previous books and the changes that do occur here seem to be more subtle and personal than apocalyptic in nature, but they could prove to be significant in the long run, or indeed in the near future.

The immediately preceding books established a significant change in the world that Connolly's PI Charlie Parker is operating in. It's one where the boundaries between supernatural evil entities and the real world are now a little more fluid. Evil is at large in the world, its presence becoming more pervasive, with the traffic running both ways and blurring the usual strict demarcations. The escalating horrors are starting to suggest some kind of end of days event not far off that will permanently alter what we now think of as reality.

Charlie Parker's role in this? Having come close to death - or strictly speaking having died three times and been revived (in The Wolf in Winter) - the Private Investigator has a stronger insight into the nature of those supernatural agencies operating in the world, and he now has a list to work with. He's still not quite clear on what the endgame of these agencies and entities might be or how they might get there, or even whether there is an ultimate endgame. All Parker knows is that he and his associates Angel and Louis could be the only thing that stands between the rest of us and horror on an unimaginable scale.

That was brilliantly established in the immediately preceding Parker novel, A Time of Torment, the PI uncovering a secretive, dangerous and isolated community in West Virginia known as the Cut, whose ritual killings were in service to an entity known as the Dead King. A Game of Ghosts doesn't seem to be all that different, the PI this time trying to track down another cult called the Brethren, who also have roots going back in American history and who also appear to be in service to an ancient evil entity. What marks out the Brethren however is that some of their number have the ability to communicate with the dead, with ghosts who may even be considered part of their number.

Parker first becomes aware of the existence of the Brethren through a new line of investigation opened up by the uneasy alliance that he has formed with FBI agent Edgar Ross. Ross has asked Parker to track down another of his off-the-books investigators, Jaykob Eklund. Eklund has gone missing, and information that Parker finds at his former residence suggests that he has come too close to finding information on a group that wants to keep their presence secret. The ancient order of the Brethren however are finding anonymity increasingly difficult to maintain in the age of the internet, information sharing and nosy neighbours. They are going to have to take some direct action to close down those lines of investigation before awareness of their presence grows any larger.

If Charlie Parker knows about it however, it's probably already too late for the Brethren and things are not going to end well, but that doesn't mean that the race to prevent them inflicting greater damage and unleashing greater evil upon the world isn't a thrilling one. If by this stage you expect more from Connolly's series, there are however moments of reflection that remind you of the wider scale of what Parker is dealing with. The Brethren and their historical background cause Parker to consider whether there is "something in the soil of the Americas, something elemental that drew creatures like the Brethren and fueled their worst appetites", a theme that has been gaining real-life meaning in previous books with the evils of the Gulf War (The Whisperers) and even old Nazis turning up on its shores (A Song of Shadows).

Whatever it is feeding the Brethren, there is evidence for it elsewhere in A Game of Ghosts. The Collector is still at large, a sinister figure with a somewhat conflicted attitude towards Parker and his aims, and the Hollow Men also come into play. What really matters in A Game of Ghosts however and tends to have more impact than the dark forces, is what is playing out in the background in Parker's personal life. His relationship with Rachel seems irreparable as Parker gets deeper into dangerous territory, but it has already made its mark on his daughter Sam. Her abilities are already known, as is her awareness of the presence Parker's deceased daughter Jennifer, but even if that aspect isn't significantly advanced either, it remains an undercurrent and a human reminder of what is at stake.

Just in case the investigation into the Brethren and the upheavals occurring in Parker's life are not enough, Connolly also brings in a crime operation in a period of expansion and change in Providence, Rhode Island, and there are serious concerns about the health of another of Parker's close associates. If the activities of Philip and Mother seem tangential if not a little superfluous to the ghost theme of this novel, they nonetheless contribute to this wider sense of dark forces at work in different ways on American soil, as well as tie in to another theme that is a constant in Connolly's Parker novels. It's one that another character Donn Routh refers to when he observes (and himself experiences) that "all important questions ended in one final implacable answer: death". Whether it answers all important questions or not - or is indeed even a true end - death is certainly a constant in Parker's life and present in a number of ways in A Game of Ghosts.

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A Game of Ghosts: (Charlie Parker 15) by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton.