A Time of Torment, by John Connolly / *****

A brief note: I actually read A Time of Torment a year ago, when it was first released, but apparently my review never actually published, or perhaps was eaten by some Internet goblins. Since I just finished Connolly’s newest novel, I figured this would be as good a time as any to get it put back up here.


     “I used to think this was all about good and evil,” said Rickett, “but it’s not.”
     “No?”
     “There’s a kind of evil that isn’t even in opposition to good, because good is an irrelevance to it. It’s a foulness that’s right at the heart of existence, born with the stuff of the universe. It’s in the decay to which all things tend. It is, and it always will be, but in dying, we leave it behind.”
     “And while we’re alive?”
     “We set our souls against it, and our saints and angels, too.” He patted Parker on the shoulder. “Especially the destroying ones.”
     Parker walked to his car, got in, and started the engine. The past is more real than the present, he thought, and we carry our histories with us.

– John Connolly, A Time of Torment


a-time-of-torment-9781501118326_hrI’m going to be straightforward here: John Connolly is one of the best writers working today. Period. Full stop. His prose is astonishing – it displays a poet’s ability with words, a gift for finding beauty even in the most nightmarish of places. (That quote above? It’s an aside – not even a major moment of the book. That’s how good he is.) But he also has the soul of a horror writer, creating some of the most disturbing, unsettling, and truly nightmarish characters, settings, and entities that I have ever read – and I am an avid horror fan, to put it mildly. And in book after book, Connolly has delivered gripping plotting, unsettling horrors, a great sense of humor, and a gift for writing that is unparalleled.

And even with all of this, A Time of Torment may be his best work to date. And that is no small feat.

A Time of Torment is the latest (#14!) in the Charlie Parker series, an ongoing series which defies easy description. Nominally, it is a crime series, one that finds Parker investigating cases and dealing with horrific crimes, often accompanied by his friends Angel and Louis. But that quick overview doesn’t quite prepare you for the darkness and true evil that lurks at the core of the Parker books, which have become an examination of good and evil, of morality, of the nature of human cruelty, and more than that, an unblinking look at human depravity and insanity. And as the series has continued, the lines between “reality” and the “supernatural” have blurred, often overlapping until there’s no clear distinction between the two.

But A Time of Torment is different from the rest of the books – and that difference lies in Parker. Parker’s inner war with himself – his nature, his choices, his actions – has anchored every one of the Parker novels to date, and Connolly’s willingness to engage with his character’s guilt (and lack thereof) has been part of the series’ greatness to date. But the events of the last few books have changed Parker irrevocably, forcing his hand and turning him from an unwilling member of this battle and into a hunter. And A Time of Torment finds him embracing that role, searching for the source and heart of the evils that have beset him, and using those around him in an effort to cleanse this world.

It’s a dangerous, ruthless new version of Parker – and given that Parker wasn’t exactly weak to begin with, that’s saying something. And yet, he’s undeniably the same man; A Time of Torment opens with Parker tracking down a man who is responsible for a series of murders, and rendering his own judgment against him. But that’s only the start-up for A Time of Torment, which finds Parker helping a man who worries that he has angered a small West Virginia community known as The Cut – and perhaps an entity known as “the Dead King”.

From there, A Time of Torment unfolds with the relentlessness of a nightmare, as we see not only what the Cut is capable of, but the evil that it seems to inspire in those who inhabit it. More than that, though, we see what Parker looks like when he is on a mission, as he, Angel, and Louis slowly focus in on the Cut with the precision of a laser, but the devastation of a force of nature.

A Time of Torment is part crime story, part thriller, and part unsettling horror novel. The crimes and murders at the core of the book are horrifying beyond words, and the glimpses Connolly gives us into the hearts of these men disturbing. But even with that, what grips you about the Parker books is the riveting plotting, which displays Connolly’s incredible gift for starting with a simple incident and letting it expand until you feel that you’ve entered into a whole second world, one filled with shadows and creatures best left unseen. And his depiction of the Cut ranks among his best examples of this, bringing to life a community that defines itself in opposition to the world around it, and enforces its own rules with ruthless force – all while being infused with the constant presence of some thing at its core that corrupts everything around it.

Indeed, it’s that incredible sense of atmosphere and dread that makes Connolly’s books so strong and stand out so much. Yes, his books can be surprisingly funny – there’s a recurring plot thread involving Angel’s obsession with restrooms that never stops being hilarious every time it pops up – but what lingers is the sense of a world, one where evil is very real, where there is a corrupting influence in our reality…and yet, also a world where there is a force of good. But when that force of good comes in the form of the violence and destruction that Parker brings, that becomes a source of ambiguity – a shade of gray where Connolly excels.

Here’s the thing, in short: A Time of Torment just may be the best book Connolly has written yet, and that’s in a career where he has written some of the best thrillers I’ve ever read – and I am a voracious, obsessive reader. To miss this book is to miss a masterpiece, plain and simple. Should you start at the beginning of the series? Almost definitely – but whatever the case, read this book, and be scared, excited, moved, and terrified.

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The Crossing, by Michael Connelly / **** ½

51-j9ahfjllFor a long time, my general rule of thumb on Michael Connelly was that his series were great, but anytime he did a crossover novel – A Darkness More than Night‘s meeting between Bosch and Terry McCaleb, for instance, or The Narrows, which found Bosch investigating the killer from The Poet – the results were invariably among his weakest work. And yet, somehow that rule has been broken once Connelly starting combining Harry Bosch, the dedicated cop, and Mickey Haller, the effective (if grandstanding) attorney. Part of that, I think, is that these characters contrast nicely with each other, giving them wildly different perspectives on the world, and different approaches to the same problems. But part of that also comes from how each character has developed over time, to the point where we know not only how complicated they are internally, but how they project a different side of themselves that isn’t always accurate.

The last collaboration between the two came from Haller’s perspective, so it seems only fair to switch to Bosch’s for The Crossing, which finds Bosch finally leaving behind the police life once and for all by crossing the line into helping a defense attorney. That the man is his half-brother doesn’t matter; that this is genuinely a case of justice gone wrong, even less. No, for Bosch – and for many of his former brothers in blue – the taking of this case is the final move away from being a homicide detective and from how Bosch defines himself, and that’s no small thing. Thankfully, Connelly treats it as such, making Bosch’s self-questioning as much of the book’s content as the case he’s investigating (as well as allowing Bosch to constantly weigh his sense of justice against Haller’s trial-based approach to the world).

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Connelly’s gift for plotting has only gotten better over time, this time creating an intricate web of murder and blackmail that only gradually reveals itself as, once again, tying into the zeitgeist as Connelly so often does. From casual references to Ferguson to community police relations, Connelly makes the book contemporary while never beating the reader over the head. As for the murder case itself, the motivations and plotting are great and fascinating; admittedly, some of the mechanics and logistics of what happens are a little over the top, but I’ll let it slide in favor of a good story.

But best of all, The Crossing once again shows Connelly’s ability to keep the Bosch series fresh and evolving, even after 20 years. From an active police beat to cold cases, the Bosch series has changed with its hero, letting his job shift as his career and personality dictate. And The Crossing finds Bosch trying to figure out who he’s going to be if he’s not a policeman anymore. And while he may not stay a defense attorney’s investigator for more than one book, it’s a sign of what kind of character that Bosch is that I’m willing to follow him for no matter what comes next in his life.

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The Devil’s Evidence, by Simon Kurt Unsworth / *****

27209225A few months ago, I stumbled across The Devil’s Detective, which told the story of Thomas Fool, a damned soul doing his best to investigate murders in Hell. It was a book that completely caught me off guard, and blew me away, creating an astonishingly vivid world, and truly committing to its premise – after all, how could you solve murders in a place designed around suffering? Unsworth’s novel embraced that question, turning it into a book in which Fool’s quest for hope and answers is as much a defiance of Hell as it is a murder mystery. It was an incredible, beautifully written book that I loved, and one that I was eager to see followed up.

Now comes The Devil’s Evidence, the second (and hopefully not last) Thomas Fool novel, which picks up some time after the first book. Fool’s stature has continued to grow, but what that means for Hell – which seems to have embraced the idea of Information Men – remains to be seen. Is Fool just a pawn in Hell’s games, or his own man? But before he can deal with that question too much, or work on the series of fires that are breaking out across Hell, he’s drafted into accompanying a delegation of demons into Heaven. And once he arrives, he starts to realize that he’s been brought here to exercise his particular skills all over again – because something horrible is happening in Heaven.

Just as he did in The Devil’s Detective, Unsworth makes his book work by embracing his environment, creating a take on Heaven unlike anything else out there (much as he did with Hell). Unsworth’s Heaven is a beautiful place, but a strange one, with joyful souls in constant waking dreams, and angels unable to perceive anything that might leave them questioning the perfection of their world. It’s a rich, strange world, and as viewed through Fool’s eyes, one that’s both beautiful and utterly alien, both appealing and wholly wrong. More than that, it’s a deeply strange place, much like Unsworth’s Hell; in both places, the idea of religion, sin, or forgiveness feel almost absent and abstract, as though they barely matter at all to the final product.

Once again, though, it’s Unsworth’s rich prose and storytelling skills that make this such a knockout, though. As Fool begins to investigate the horrific crimes throughout Heaven, Unsworth keeps the pressure building, introducing off-kilter angels, ratcheting up the tension between Fool and the demons who resent him, and escalating the stakes far beyond these original murders. Through it all, Unsworth keeps us invested in Fool’s fate – not only his life, but his emotional stakes, his sense of purpose, and his efforts to find something resembling happiness in a horrific life. And once again, that quest for meaning and understanding becomes important as an end unto itself, with knowledge serving both as its own reward and its own curse.

The Devil’s Evidence is a worthy sequel in every way, and that’s no small feat, given how much I loved The Devil’s Detective; it avoids the problem of repetition by letting the story, the world, and the characters evolve and grow, expanding Unsworth’s odd cosmology in the most logical way. And the result is every bit the book that Detective was, working both as horror novel and detective story, as neo-noir and dark fantasy, as bleak crime novel and surreal Barker-esque horror. It’s a wonderfully unique novel, and one that leaves me eager for more Thomas Fool to come.

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The Steel Kiss, by Jeffery Deaver / ****

thesteelkissusa-220x332There was a time when Jeffery Deaver’s books were day one reads for me – instant purchases, to be devoured and enjoyed. My enthusiasm for his books has waxed and waned over the years, though, as Deaver has turned more and more formulaic, and for every great read he writes (The Kill RoomThe October List), he turns out a few generic, forgettable, or even bad ones (Trouble in MindRoadside Crosses).

And so, when I first started to read The Steel Kiss, I got annoyed with what I felt like were Deaver’s usual tropes – the obvious misleads and feints, the half truths – and quit. But I’m glad I went back to The Steel Kiss, because what I got as I read was an engaging, really fun read, and a firmer grip on what Deaver has become over the years: basically, he’s become CSI or NCIS, the very shows I always felt like his books inspired, complete with the rhythms and patterns that come along with such entertainment.

Now, with that being said, there’s no denying the fun that can come out of a Deaver book. The Steel Kiss is simple but effective, following Rhyme as he helps out with a civil case inspired by the horrific death of a man in a malfunctioning escalator. Meanwhile, Sachs is trying to track down an anti-consumerist killer who’s killing people using the devices that make their lives easier. Will these two cases come together? Of course they will. And does it all somehow connect a bit to Pulaski’s extracurricular activities with local drug dealers? More or less.

And yet, even while I recognized all the formulas at play, and many of Deaver’s usual tools and tricks, I enjoyed The Steel Kiss pretty well. Deaver’s made an effort to mix things up a little here and there in the series, and while this doesn’t result in the really fantastic read of The Kill Room, it’s still a lot of fun, delivering some good thrills, at least one genuinely big surprise (even if I rolled my eyes at the explanation afterward), and an engaging antagonist who kept me involved.

I don’t think Deaver is the favorite author for me that he was once, but I think I’ve realized along the way that it’s not that he’s gotten worse, either. It’s just that Deaver has a formula that works, by and large, and he’s pretty happy working in that formula. And while I prefer my books a little more adventurous, a little more original, there’s no denying the pleasure that comes from watching Deaver construct his puzzles and unravel the clues, nor the fun of watching him tie all of his various plot threads together in more elegant ways than you assumed – or the fun of being fooled by him, even when you think you have him figured out. Are these day one purchases for me anymore? No, not really…but will I buy them as the equivalent of beach reads? More than likely.

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The Devil’s Detective, by Simon Kurt Unsworth / *****

51ceg9jotjlThe more modern noir I read, the more I often think that much of the best work in the genre revolves around a grip on its environment. James Ellroy and L.A.; Dennis Lehane and Boston; John Connolly and Maine; Raymond Chandler and California…the list goes on and on, but in almost every case, it’s hard to picture the stories working half as well without their world to draw off of, to be its own character in the complex story. And in the best noir, the environment is the story in no small part – for instance, look at how Ellroy draws off of the underside of L.A. to drive his sordid tales.

But rarely have I seen that idea used as effectively and powerfully as it is in The Devil’s Detective, a book whose setting is original, unforgettable, and inextricably linked to its characters, its plot, and its mood. Because its setting is Hell, and in that blasted, hopeless landscape, author Simon Kurt Unsworth crafts a piece of noir unlike just about anything else I’ve read.

Because, here’s the thing about Hell: how do you make a mystery set in Hell? How do you tell a story about a murder in a place where torment is constant, where torture is everywhere, where nightmares live and breathe and the entire point of existence is to live in regret and pain? And more than that, when an environment is shaped around a lack of hope, how can any crime ever be solved – because wouldn’t that offer hope and justice in a place defined by their absence?

Rather than dodge those questions, Unsworth bakes them into the DNA of his book, following Fool, one of Hell’s Information Men – a sinner himself – who finds himself doing something he’s never done before: actually investigating a crime. To be sure, this is an unusual crime – not only was a human murdered, but his soul was reaped from his body – but Fool’s investment in the crime, and his dedication to understanding it, feels like a slow, seismic shift in Hell. And his interest – his insistence that this soul matters, that even Hell must have rules – indeed changes everything around him, and throughout Hell. And that change becomes as much a part of the story as the investigation itself.

But, oh, that investigation. This is a labyrinthine case, make no mistake about it, and one that feels heavily indebted to Chandler and Hammett along the way; like those authors, Unsworth follows his detective through a slew of encounters with citizens from all over Hell, through seedy environments and upper class “suburbs” (of Hell), through high-level politics and through abused citizens. But Unsworth makes it all his own, giving us a Hell unlike any other that I’ve read – a Hell that has left behind the torture and nightmares of Dante and resembles nothing so much as a hopeless, bleak industrial society, an inner-city where brutality and violence are just part of the day-to-day life. And as Unsworth dives into the life of Hell and its occupants, his world continues to flesh out, and we start to see just how much his characters – and these crimes – are a function of this world, and not a recent addition. And once that link becomes clear, the story becomes richer, because it’s about more than just one crime – it’s about our hero, and about life in Hell, and about this bizarre, dark world that Unsworth has crafted for us.

Make no mistake, though: this is a dark world. Much of what makes Unsworth’s novel work is that he allows Hell to be every bit as nightmarish and disturbing as it should be. The demons are horrific, and their relationship with humans is brutal and upsetting. The violence is shocking and constant; the atmosphere bleak; the world unforgiving. And the cost is high, and that matters here, because as soon as you care about the world and have hope, it can be taken from you. And that’s the nature of Hell.

And yet, even with all of that, The Devil’s Detective never becomes nihilistic. Instead, it gives us a rich, compelling hero in Fool, who becomes a crusader for lost causes, a lone light in the darkness, and a hope in a world without it. That’s heady material, and makes Fool’s quest all the more engaging, and his development as a character all the more rewarding, as he finds himself becoming noticed by Hell…and then respected by Hell. It turns a noir detective something richer and more profound, and its constant evolution as a book only makes it work all the more.

In short? I loved this book, plain and simple. I loved its complicated, incredible world, and the astonishing array of characters. (I haven’t even touched on Unsworth’s most fascinating character, The Man of Plants and Flowers, who defies all characterization.) I loved its complex story, which uses the framework of a noir tale as a starting point and turns it into something wholly else. And I loved Fool, whose noble quest in the face of horrors becomes as gripping and important as solving the murder that starts it all. I loved the world, the story, the ideas, and the writing, and I can’t wait to see what else Unsworth has in him to come.

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Dark Jenny, by Alex Bledsoe / ****

10864561Dark Jenny is my first book by Alex Bledsoe, which also means it’s my first book in the Eddie LaCrosse series. That series – whose main character is essentially a hard-boiled detective in a fantasy world – had a couple of books behind it already by the time Dark Jenny came out, which means that I’m definitely missing some references and backstory scattered throughout the book. And yet, by and large, I don’t think any of that quite mattered to me – what I got was a really engaging, fun, enjoyable adventure story, although one that drew a little too heavily on its sources for me.

Dark Jenny is mainly a bit of backstory on Eddie, who spends most of the book at a tavern recounting a story of his adventures for a captive audience. That story involves LaCrosse’s journey to Grand Braun, a now-peaceful country that’s ruled by King Marcus Drake. Drake took a wild country, one largely composed of battling tribes, and consolidated the rule into a throne, supported by the Knights of the Double Tarn. But when someone poisons one of the Knights, LaCrosse gets drawn into the situation, and has to unravel a complicated tale of power struggles, religion, trust, and honor.

If the setup for this novel sounds a little like King Arthur to you, well, it should. Bledsoe doesn’t really make much effort to pretend he’s not playing with Arthurian legends (even the novel’s epigraph foreshadows this nicely), and by and large, that’s okay. The whole idea of Dark Jenny is to realize that even legends have their shadows, and that no hero is truly a great person – we all have our shadows. The downside, though, is that Bledsoe draws on those Arthurian legends so heavily that a lot of the big “reveals” of the story won’t come as much of a surprise if you know the legends in any depth (pretty much the instant Arthur’s nephew is introduced, a lot of you – like me – will know a lot of backstory that’s yet to come out).

That being said, none of it really detracts from how much fun the book is. Bledsoe’s got a fun style, and LaCrosse is a good narrator, bringing wisecracks, cynical wisdom, and a detective’s mindset to the story that’s unfolding. And the idea to approach the Arthurian legends as a mystery ends up being an inspired one, allowing Bledsoe to play with clues and reveals in a way that gives them far more emotional impact than they might have had originally. More than that, there’s his wonderfully askew takes on some of the key players, especially Merlin, whose counterpart here feels closer to The Dude than he does an ancient wizard.

Beyond his offbeat take on the legends, Bledsoe brings out some good thematic depth from his reframing of the legends as a noir tale, allowing it to become more about morality, what we sacrifice for greater ideals, and how even the best of us can be corrupted – all perfect ideas to bring into a noir novel, even one with swords and (sort-of) wizards. If I have a grumble with Dark Jenny, it’s that it leans so heavily on the Arthurian legends that I don’t really have a sense of Bledsoe’s own gift for plotting; that being said, I enjoyed this enough that I’m definitely checking out more of Bledsoe’s books, and maybe more of the Eddie LaCrosse series as well.

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Made to Kill, by Adam Christopher / ****

81ufyzqwmulLook, I know that the conventional wisdom is “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but can we just acknowledge up front that Made to Kill has a pretty spectacular cover? Look at the retro feel of that, the way it blends sci-fi with noir sensibilities. First of all, it’s a great-looking and attention-grabbing cover, but more than that, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a cover that more accurately prepares you for the wonderfully fun world of Made to Kill.

In his acknowledgments, author Adam Christopher discusses the origins of Made to Kill, and it’s no surprise at all that the book began life as a tribute to Raymond Chandler. More accurately, it’s a tribute to what Raymond Chandler might have written if he had ever written a science-fiction tale. So, just as that gorgeous cover implies, you’re getting a beautifully hard-boiled detective story, but one that’s been run through a science-fiction filter, with a story that starts with a missing person and ends up being about the CIA, Communist plots, mind control, and so much more.

But even apart from the sci-fi elements of the plot, there’s our hero, one Raymond Electromatic, the last robot left in America, and a current detective who also moonlights as a professional killer. That sounds like a complicated setup for a book, and that’s before Christopher brings in all sorts of wrinkles – most notably, that Raymond’s magnetic tape memory only lasts a day, so he has to start each day by being reminded of what came the day before. And yet, Christopher handles it all wonderfully, moving through his setup and backstory with grace and ease, covering it all with humor, style, and fun, and never letting it slow down the Chandler-appropriate fast pace of the story.

More than that, Christopher does his electric hero right, turning Raymond into a narrator who’s more than just a simple gimmick. Yes, he’s capable of wisecracks – who wouldn’t be in a Chandler homage? – but he’s also thoughtful, careful, and a pretty good investigator. And if that’s not all enough, there’s Raymond’s own constant awareness that he’s a strange, alien sight who’s not always welcome. Raymond’s robotic nature isn’t just a gimmick; it’s fundamental to who he is, and it shapes the story along the way in wonderful and surprisingly rich ways.

In the end, though, Made to Kill is a Chandler homage, for better or for worse. For better because its fast pace, clever plotting, entertaining story, and engaging banter make it a blast to read; for worse because that’s about all there is here. It’s a fun detective story, and an original one, but not much beyond that. It’s Cold War pulp, and it’s clever, but it’s popcorn, through and through. But sometimes, all you want is some popcorn, and I can’t deny that Made to Kill scratched that itch and then some. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s entertaining, and it’s a blast to read. Just don’t expect too much depth to chew on when you’re done.

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