Reviewed by Ian Lipke
New readers of John Connolly, if such exist, will find the writer’s style annoying, even frustrating. He uses a multiplicity of words when fewer would have done the job. Born in Dublin in 1968, John Connolly’s first book Every Dead Thing launched his career in a spectacular start. He was in the front rank of thriller writers and book after book has kept him there. He eclipsed his award-winning run by becoming the first Irish writer to win the Edgar Prize. A man using too many words. Why? For what reasons are John Connolly’s books so popular?
One of the reasons for his popularity is related to words – words that are selected with great care so that they are exactly right. In The Dirty South the author introduces a lake where ugly things have happened. Its name, the harsh sound of the name Karagol, a Turkish word whose literal name means ‘black lake’, “It seemed to consume light” (9), a fitting image for dirty deeds. Through generating descriptions that seem to have been misplaced from another story, Connolly’s powerful, clinically chosen words assure the reader that something important is definitely happening.
The Dirty South opens with a mystery, something eerie and magical, in language appropriately splendid. “The tide rolled in, erasing the first of the footprints in the sand, like the memory of a presence gradually being excised from the history of the beach” (6). The story winds from that moment in time to the small town of Cargill where a man, drinking at a bar, is taken into custody on the whim of the local law. The author, without our being aware, is folding one event around another, each event, like granny folding-in layer after layer of her scone mix to end with a beautiful meal. The prisoner is called Parker. He is a former NYPD police officer and is the hero of this story.
Chapter Four spends several pages in description of the members of Cargill’s police force. One officer, who plays a central role in what follows is Kel Knight, “a rawboned, balding man who had never been known to raise his voice above conversational levels” (23). We learn that he had returned to care for his ailing parents, both of whom died soon after, at which point the narrator inserts himself into the explanation with the wry comment, “which didn’t say much for his abilities as a nurse” (23). We meet Evan Griffin, an officer dedicated to decency and Sheriff Jurel Cade who was not. Twenty pages on, new characters have entered the story and still the prisoner is in his cell, while we learn more about the problems of the County and its people.
By page 54 a horrific murder has occurred and we meet another significant character Tilon Ward who, by reporting a murder, draws the Cargill PD into a spin around the crime scene and then back to the prisoner in the cell. During the period, criminals have flitted by, new characters have been introduced, the story is growing, the prisoner is relaxing in his prison cell. He is the pivot that solves the crime in the pages ahead. It is after a hundred pages of text that we learn that the prisoner is an ex-NYPD detective, and another twenty-pages later we learn of his decision to assist the local police with the crimes that have to be solved.
One hundred and twenty plus pages were needed to begin the central part of the story yet, while the story is unfolding, the reader is glued to hypnotic writing. One of the significant talents that Connolly brings to his writing is his choice of vocabulary, selection of apparently unrelated events, a warmth that carries the reader with him, and the importance he places on characterization.
Connolly calls his book The Dirty South. We learn quickly that it has ‘dirty’ politicians and dirty administrators of the law. Often its characters seem to be the product of continued family inbreeding. The villains, at all levels, are indescribably dirty. When Parker diverts from his mission (to kill the man who destroyed his family), in order to assist the honest police in Cargill find their criminals, he reflects that Cargill “was a miserable town, in a miserable county, and therefore a miserable place to die” (119).
As always, a treat to read. Highly recommended.
by John Connolly