SPEAKING from his Dublin home, Irish author John Connolly confirms he is putting the finishing touches to The Unquiet, the sixth book in his series about haunted Maine private eye Charlie Parker.
That news should come as a relief to those fans who have lapped up Parker's adventures since his debut Every Dead Thing made Connolly the only non-American to win the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award. They may be fans of Parker, but that does not mean they will follow the author into his non-crime work. Connolly warns that the hardcore will not even read outside a series and shun standalone novels. Novels like his own Bad Men, though that does feature a Parker cameo.
Yet despite this warning, Connolly has taken time out from crime for his latest publication to hit the bookstore shelves, The Book of Lost Things, a coming of age tale set in the Britain of World War II and where its young protagonist, 12 year old David, manufactures a fantasy world from the folk tales, fairy stories and children's classics he has read. Much as he loves it, Connolly reads less crime fiction than he used to, and if it is not the only genre he reads these days, it is certainly not the only one he wants to write.
"I know that if I write another Parker book it will sell x-amount of copies. It's good to take a chance now and then," Connolly said. "I'm a really hard judge of what I do, but I'm really proud of the book. I really feel it is the best thing I have done. I really feel that I am progressing but readers may feel differently."
He is trying not to feel too despondent about the results of a poll on his own website which invited readers to vote for their favour Connolly books. Every Dead Thing topped the list, with a steady fall in popularity for each successive book until a slight upward turn for the last Parker book, The Black Angel.
"It was like a downhill ski-slope! I might as well have given up after the first book!" he laughed.
If there is a lingering suspicion that his readers would be happy if all he did was turn out endless variations of his first book, Connolly is fortunate his publishers have been more receptive to a new direction.
"I wanted to write this book and thankfully Hodder (Connolly's UK publishers) liked it and so did my American publishers. But they might not have. Nobody has ever said they want me to do something. They have really given me my head," he said.
A previous departure from criminal matters was teh supernaturally themed short story collection Nocturnes, which John believes contains some of his best stories and best ideas, but which he accepts will only be read by a handful of people because of the poor sales of anthologies generally. "Maybe that's the flipside of our busy lifestyles," he suggested.
"I think people value their time so much that when they read they want to slip into something more substantial. I'm not disappointed. I knew that was going to happen and I think people who really like my books will eventually pick it up. I'm lucky. I can pay my bills, so why not take that leeway?"
Yet even the Parker books are a long way from the standard private eye story, throwing up a challenge to crime fiction's strictly rationalist tradition with ghosts and fallen angels thrown into the mix with some of the most macabre human villains in contemporary crime fiction.
"I thought the supernatural element would thin out, but it just seems to creep in," Connolly said.
These otherworldy elements and the folklore motifs of Dark Hollow the second Parker book, are picked up and expanded by The Book of Lost Things where David's insecurities, accecerbated by his widowed father's new marriage, manifest themselves in a surreal and sinister fairy tale world. Despite the age of his protagonist, Connolly has written a book for adults, but one which recognises fairy tales are more than just kids' stuff.
"If you read people like Bruno Bettelheim and his book The Uses of Enchantment, you learn that these are not just stories, they are a way of restructuring the world," Connolly said. "If you go into Jungian therapy, the therapist will often use folk tales as a means of drawing things out, especially when you are dealing with children. If you offer them stories and start reading them fairy tales, a troubled child will latch on to that tale which they most identify with."
Connolly acknowledges there is a strong autobiographical element to the book. "I was that child," he declared. "I did have a fairly troubled early adolescence and my parents did haul me off to a psychiatrist as they do with David in the book."
The pre-war setting, he added, was chosen to reflect the turmoil David experiences internally in the wider world as well as dispensing with the distractions of modern adolescent life like Playstations and mobile phones, but it maintains his habit of shying away from an Irish setting for his novels.
"Initially when I began writing I was just reacting against the strictures I felt were placed on Irish writing," he explained. "And American crime fiction doesn't work when you relocate it to Ireland. We're not an urban nation."
Which is why he is content to live in Ireland and set his crime stories in the USA. Although Parker's investigations have taken him to New York, New Orleans and the Deep South, it is Maine which is his base and Connolly, like Stephen King, has tapped into what he describes as "that sense of something strange" about the state he first came to know while spending a summer working in a Maine hotel in 1991.
"I very rarely have to make things up," Connolly revealed. "I wrote a book a few years ago called The Killing Kind, which was about religious obsession in Maine. When that came out people were telling me that sort of thing doesn't happen here, but just after publication a minister in the Lutheran Church in New Sweden put arsenic in the after service coffee one person died and a lot ended up in hospital so I felt thoroughly vindicated."
The Book of Lost Things is published by Hodder & Stoughton, price £12.99.
See what John got up to at his book launch
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