A Time of Torment - John Connolly

A Time of Torment - John Connolly *****

For an author whose crime fiction involves the supernatural to a large degree, John Connolly does a very disturbing line in exploring real world horrors in his Charlie Parker series. Each Charlie Parker novel contributes to build up a darker picture of sinister forces of evil at large in the world and becoming increasing influential, but the question of whether the atrocities are committed to serve these supernatural agencies or whether it is a build-up of human evil that creates such forces is a distinction that is less clear. What is shocking however is that no matter how horrific the crimes of some of Parker's dark adversaries are, they all lie within the capacity of humans to inflict upon others. It would seem that there is no limit to the amount of suffering, torment and death that some are capable of inflicting on on other human beings.

A Time of Torment is the author's 14th Charlie Parker case, while it largely sees the PI involved in a self-contained investigation, it very much contributes to that bigger picture instead of just going over old ground in yet another mass serial killer. The latest book opens with what seems like Charlie Parker wrapping up a few loose ends - and fairly major ones too - but it's only a prelude to the next stage of a far larger canvas. It shows that the nature of the evil to be faced in A Time of Torment is a particularly vile one that takes delight in prolonging agony and suffering not just of its victims, but of those associated with the victim. It's something that Parker himself has experienced in the loss of his own family, but it's taken to a disturbing new level here. Not gratuitously either, but with an eye towards understanding where such horror comes from.

Having himself 'died' in a previous case, Parker now has 'insider' resources to draw upon in his aim to remove evil from the world, but he also has a couple of mortal associates - Louis and Angel - who are equally as effective at dealing with dangerous characters. Parker's relationship with the authorities remains problematic, but his ability to sniff out evil can't be dismissed, nor can the evidence of his results. In A Time of Torment, Parker's reputation and his abilities bring a recently released convict to his 'office' which directs him towards the Cut - a secretive, dangerous and isolated community in West Virginia. The Cut have their own way of operating and settling scores, some of which involve burning folk alive, but they have other more prolonged ways of making those who have crossed them suffer. Inevitably, this being a Charlie Parker novel, there's an occult aspect to the Cut's activities, and here the detective comes across a little known entity known as the Dead King.

As grim as the subject gets Connolly's writing is always a delight, taking time to describe the local colour, customs and less salubrious establishments of Parker's Maine, blending it this time with hillbilly country and cult groups for their associations with inbreeding and behaviour outside that of normal society. But there's no reliance on clichés, Connolly taking little sidebars to develop secondary characters with real lives and personalities, as well as their own little brushes with fate and evil. All of it contributes to the richness of the story in question as well as helping expand the view of the universe and a certain mindset that Connolly is developing in these novels.

That subject and the question he explores is how unopposed evil has insinuated itself into the world under a protective layer of acceptance or tolerance. Connolly doesn't believe that it can be so easily categorised and boxed up, and has repeatedly shown in his books that the evils men are capable of knows no boundaries. The physical boundaries that separate Parker from the other side consequently also of necessity have to be a little more fluid as he takes on ever greater dark entities and manifestations of evil. After much brooding recently, Parker now seems ready to step up to the next level and take the game to them. The fact that the PI now carries a fearless aura of invincibility about him doesn't lessen the discomfort of the festering horror about to be unleashed in A Time of Torment in the slightest. It just leaves Parker, with the always thrilling assistance of Louis and Angel, more capable of rooting out that evil at its source.

As you might expect, that takes the novel into some foul and bloody places, and rather than wrap everything up in a conventional manner, A Time of Torment doesn't so much tie up a number of loose ends as add them into the bigger knot. What is great about Connolly's writing is that, whether Parker is dealing with ancient gods manifesting in Gulf War PTSD (The Whisperers) or tracking down old Nazi war criminals (A Song of Shadows), the author has a way of making it all feel relevant and real-world in a way that most horror writing dealing with the supernatural rarely achieves. In A Time of Torment, the world feels just that little bit colder and darker even as the light seems to be starting to gain ground.

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A Time of Torment by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton.