Archive for the “Monday Mystery” Category
In many ways, this is the “part two” for The Killing Kind, and the structure of the two books very broadly resembles the structure of Every Dead Thing. Only, instead of cramming the “Parker is too late to realize the obvious set-up by the villain” storyline in the middle of the actual storyline, the “Parker is too late to realize the obvious set-up” storyline gets moved into another book entirely. It works much better this time in terms of pacing and overall satisfaction. We do, after all, get two full stories now, instead of two rather rushed ones, but it also means that the ending of the last book lacks resolution and this book requires familiarity with what happened before to catch what’s going on.
The book opens with a brief flash-forward, as Angel and Louis travel to Georgia to kill the three men who organized the lynching of Errol Rich when Louis was a young boy. It’s an important scene for a couple reasons. One, it sets up a storyline for Angel that’s more in depth than what he’s had before, where we see the lengths Angel must go to to exorcise the psychic damage Faulkner did to him. Of the three regular male leads, Angel is the least likely to kill, but Faulkner’s actions have essentially corrupted him, and now Angel feels a need to kill to act as catharsis. The background we get on both Angel and Louis later in the book ties into this as well: Angel has been a perpetual victim for most of his life, and it’s only his association with Parker and Louis that has moved him beyond that. Faulkner has set him back. Louis, meanwhile, killed his first man when he was thirteen, when he planted a bomb in a whistle to kill the man who murdered his mother and raped his aunt. Louis has always been about killing those who need killing in order to satisfy the greater good. The other purpose the scene serves is to very explicitly lay out the theme for the book; sins of the past have consequences now.
The main plot concerns Parker being contacted by an old acquaintance from his NYPD days, a former prosecutor named Elliot Norton now semi-retired to South Carolina and working as a defense attorney. His current client is Atys Jones, a black man accused of raping and murdering his white girl-friend, Marianne Larousse, daughter of wealthy industrialist Earl Larousse. Complicating the matter is the presence of Roger Bowen, the closest thing to a leader a loose-knit confederation of racist groups, using public outrage over Marianne’s death to raise funds for the defense of Reverend Faulkner. Before leaving for South Carolina, Parker speaks with Faulkner in prison, where he is awaiting a bail appeal hearing and arguing that he was the innocent victim of his children’s violent predations. Faulkner offers Parker a deal; don’t testify against him and he won’t have Rachel killed, an offer Parker refuses before Faulkner speaks to him of Black Angels again, implying that the beings that Parker is angering at this point are inhuman and explicitly supernatural. After Parker leaves, Faulkner begins signing to the man in the opposite cell, a serial killer named Cyrush Nairn, whose real crimes have so far been undetected, doing time for an attempted burglary and pretending to be deaf and mute-though he is perfectly capable of hearing and only affects to be mute. Faulkner is aware of Nairn’s crimes and has been arranging to “give” Rachel to him once Nairn is released.
In South Carolina, Parker quickly finds the situation to be infinitely more complicated than he initially surmised. Atys Jones and Marianne Larousse were not just lovers; in the past, her family owned his family and one of his ancestors led a brief slave rebellion. Further, Elliot Norton was good friends with Earl Larousse Jr, Marianne’s older brother, and one of his clients, Landron Mobley, was hired muscle for Roger Bowen. Bowen is chummy with the Larousse family and claims to employ a man named Kittim, who is leading the efforts to free Faulkner. Kittim is a curious case, as everyone in Bowen’s movement agrees that Kittim is “legendary” but no one can actually ever seem to remember what, precisely, he is famous for. This odd memory gap and the stench of rotting meat that follows Kittim around serve to unnerve everyone. In addition, Atys Jones mother and aunt both went missing from the same swamp that Marianne Larousse’s body was found in nearly twenty years ago, and his father appears to be an ex-con turned jailhouse preacher named Tereus, who went to jail for killing the man who raped Aty’s mother and was the presumed father of Atys Jones until Parker starts researching the situation for himself. As a further complication, the rest of the circle that included Norton, Earl Jr and Mobley are being killed off by a woman with scaled skin one by one. As is usual for Parker’s life, things quickly go to hell, and he frequently finds himself having visions of a ghostly car trailing him.
After much back-and-forthing with Parker criss-crossing the state, with Louis acting as occasional bodyguard, Kittim and Bowen’s men kill Atys and Norton disappears (without, tellingly, leaving a body behind, a sure sign of guilt by genre convention), while Angel makes a side-trip to New York to contact the same synagogue that hired the Golem to kill Faulkner in the previous book. Eventually the truth is revealed in a confrontation in the swamp, Earl Jr, Norton and their friends, under the guidance of Mobley, raped Atys Jones mother and aunt, burning both women and leaving them for dead in the swamp, but Melia, Atys’s aunt, survived, living in the swamp and giving rise to the local legend of a ghostly, scaled woman. When Tereus was released from jail they began their revenge scheme, starting with the murder of Marianne Larousse, whose relationship with Atys they were unaware of. Mobley used his knowledge of Norton and Earl Jr’s involvement and sold it to Bowen as blackmail material to force the Larousse family to bankroll his activities. The inevitable confrontation ends with everyone but Parker dead, and Kittim trying to escape into the swamp, only to be captured by members of the synagogue who are aware, quite plainly and literally, not human but a spirit animating a corpse.
Back home, Faulkner is granted bail and his confederates arrange an escape for him. One by one Faulkner’s group is picked off by people working for either Louis or the synagogue, but Cyrus Nairn is busily stalking Rachel and Parker’s unborn child. In short order, Parker, Angel and Louis find and kill Faulkner, frustrating his ambitions to become a martyr by ensuring that, as far as the world is concerned, he simply disappears. Rachel lures Nairn into the woods, beats him and drowns him in the river. In a
epilogue, Cyrus finds himself along “the White Road”, the metaphor for the path of the dead that Tereus used in his conversations with Parker, and the ghostly car waiting for him. Inside are the spirits of Stritch and Pudd and his sister, each with the manners of their deaths visited upon them over and over again. Tellingly, like the incident with Rachel, these scenes are not relayed to us by Parker, but by an omniscient narrator; Rachel’s actions and the nature of the afterlife for these characters is information withheld from Parker.
In a lot of ways this book represents the “end” of the first cycle of Charlie Parker stories. While the elements of the supernatural have always been present, going forward it’s more explicitly a factor in the stories, so Faulkner’s suggestion that he is the last of Parker’s strictly human foes is largely correct. It also ties many of the loose threads from earlier books together with Faulkner acting as a motivating factor for events since the Travelling Man first appeared. The themes the series revisits over and over are laid out here again; the sins of the past continue to have consequences in the present, and the world is a “honeycomb” with secrets buried deeper and deeper in it, all in layers, and each secret waiting to harm those living on the surface of the world.
Chapters 21-27, Epilogue
Parker and Rachel’s brief idyll is broken when Pudd and Mrs. Torrance, keeper of Carter Paragon and Fellowship secretary, break into Parker’s cottage and take the couple hostage. Parker, drifting in and out of consciousness from the assault, notes the presence of a man he presumes to be Reverend Faulkner, who makes comments about Parker being able to see the dead. Pudd begins to torture Rachel with his spiders, and Parker breaks the chair he is tied to, impaling Mrs. Torrance on a spar of wood while Pudd escapes. The necessity of having Rachel treated for her spider-bites forces Parker to come clean about the Fellowship and his investigation with the local police, who surmise that the murder of Jack Mercier, his wife and lawyer on their yacht that same night is, in light of all this information about a long-running fundamentalist Christian conspiracy to assassinate anyone they consider sinners, probably related.
Mrs. Torrance is one of those figures in the novel that I’m mostly glossed over before, because her primary role up to now was to be a bitchy voice on the phone impeding Parker’s investigation. Her presence here in this scene feels like something of a narrative contrivance; she has to be here because she has to die because the board needs to be cleared of everyone associated with the Fellowship by the end of the novel. But the Mrs. Torrance we’ve seen so far is, really, just a bitchy, petty secretary. Elevating her to a woman who happily stands by while a mass murderer tortures a woman to death feels like a stretch. Logically, it should be Pudd’s sister Muriel here, and since Mrs. Torrance’s final act is spitting blood and refusing to tell Parker where Faulkner is, putting a mute character in her place pretty much accomplishes the same effect.
The next day, Parker is finally able to lean on Marcy Becker’s parents enough to convince them to tell him where she is hiding. He takes Louis and Rachel with him, for their firepower and counselling skills, and find Marcy at her family cabin (a rather obvious place to look, really) and get her to tell the story of what happened to Grace; she had left Marcy in a hotel for two days, returning wet and carrying a bundle. On the drive back they were spotted by the police, so Grace gave Marcy the package and dropped her off after a blind curve. Marcy witnessed Lutz murder Grace and ran off with the package to hide. The package, we soon discover, is another Faulkner Apocalypse, only this one is made out of human skin and bone. A small name on each “page” lists the person the skin was from, and the Aroostock Baptists make up most of the book. Parker’s attempt to flee with Marcy is frustrated by the arrival of the Golem and Lutz, with the Golem taking Lutz with him in exchange for not killing Parker for interfering with his work. Meanwhile, Pudd kidnaps Angel.
No, seriously, that’s how the book treats the subject, as an aside at the end of a chapter. Now, a lot has been written about gendered violence in genre fiction, and this book series opens with horrible things happening to a woman and her daughter in order to angst motivate the hero. It’s an unpleasant and regrettable trope, but it’s the character trajectory we’re dealing with here. And I would certainly include violence against gay characters as one of the elements of gendered violence that’s overused in genre fiction. But I’m not going to get into that now, because Angel and Louis fall into a complicated position in that regard (it’s really hard to see professional killers as “victims”) and because I’m pretty much going to have to address it in The White Road.
In any case…Parker calls a friend at the FBI for any information on the Travelling Man’s movements in Maine that might be a clue to where Faulkner and his children are and is told of a trip to Lubec that was nowhere near any investigation that should have been conducted. Lebec is known for historic lighthouses, and once Parker arrives in town he learns of a partially collapsed lighthouse built by a Baptist minister in the 1800s that is inhabited by “an old man and his children.” Parker makes his way onto the heavily fortified encampment, and in a field finds the Golem, dead and staked to a tree. Muriel, Faulkner’s daughter emerges from a nearby building and dies quickly in a gunfight with Parker. The building itself is filled with shelves and shelves full of spiders and insects, and while inside Parker has another gunfight with Pudd, ending when Parker tips over a shelf, causing a domino effect that crushes Pudd under shattering glass cages full of venomous insects.
Inside the main building, Parker finds walls covered with apocalyptic imagery, and signs that the Faulkners were planning on fleeing. In the basement is Angel, still alive but badly injured, and with a patch of skin removed from his back. Parker takes him out of the house and finds Faulkner himself preparing to leave by boat from a nearby jetty. Parker shoots the boat’s motor, stranding Faulkner, and the two banter about the nature of evil and sin and Faulkner’s weak justifications for mass murder, before Parker is attacked by a somehow still alive Pudd. Parker loses his gun in the struggle and seems on the verge of losing when Angel appears and literally blows Pudd’s head off. Faulkner then attempts to provoke Parker into using a flare gun to blow him and the boat, leaking oil, up, but Parker instead uses the flare to signal the police, enraging Faulkner by denying him his desired martyrdom. The book ends with Parker at home with Rachel and Rachel revealing that she is pregnant.
It’s hard to discuss this book in isolation because, unlike the two previous books, it…really isn’t a stand-alone book. In many ways, this book and the next book in the series are two parts of one longer story, only stretched out to a more reasonable length instead of having two separate but related plots crammed into one book, as was the case in Every Dead Thing. Events from this book continue directly on into The White Road, and characters and events take on greater significance when viewed in that context. As a stand alone book, then, the story here is somewhat unsatisfying. The central mystery is who killed Grace Peltier and why, and when the answer comes (religious fanatics) there’s not really anyone left to care except Parker himself. And the last thing Parker needs, frankly, is more angst. And while Pudd is a supremely creepy villain, and while the Fellowship’s motives have suitably uncomfortable real-world parallels, Faulkner himself is rather sad and petty in his ideology. A case could be made that this itself is a statement about the ultimate banality of evil, but given the horrific nature of Faulkner’s crimes and the repeated suggestion that killers of this nature are not, strictly speaking, even human, his ultimate mundanity is frustrating.
There’s a lot of ground to cover in these chapters, as events themselves move quickly, Parker often learns of them at second-hand, and Parker is more or less keeping pace with the reader when it comes to revelations about the plot that is unfolding. He starts by tracking own Grace’s friend Ali Wynn, a perky Goth girl who broke off contact with Grace when Grace’s obsession with the Aroostock Baptists became unhealthy. Parker then also learns of the death of Rabbi Josef Epstein, whom he had seen at the Mercier home, and was prominent in anti-Nazi and anti-racism movements, and was part of a legal challenge to the Fellowship’s tax-exempt status. Shortly thereafter, Curtis Pelletier is killed as well.
Parker is then summoned into the presence of Al Z, who explains that he sicced Parker on Pudd because Pudd’s activities have not only made him enemies amongst the mob, but because even their low moral standards are offended by Pudd, but Al cannot be seen to move against him without initiating a full war between the mob and the people Pudd works for. Al refers him to a retired Jewish mobster named Mickey Shine, and warns Parker that a Jewish hitman named The Golem has been hired to kill Pudd as a response to the death of Rabbi Epstein.
Shine mostly speaks around the question of Pudd when Parker talks to him, though he does have an idea of where Pudd’s home base is, or at least was: somewhere in the north of Maine, in the woods, near a lighthouse. But Shine does further the notion that Pudd, and men like him, are not actually human, but hollow things with some kind of spirit of malice inside them. That night at the opera, Pudd kills Al Z and his bodyguard while Parker and Rachel just happen to be coincidentally there. Shine goes into hiding, but agrees to meet Parker at the Cloisters-a museum housing medieval exhibits-that he says will explain what Pudd and the Fellowship are after. At the same time, The Golem arrives and kills Lester Bargus, Pudd’s spider-dealer and a gun-dealer for militia groups, who had earlier refused to give any info to Parker. This leaves Parker caught in the middle of two professional killers working towards each other.
The Cloisters exhibit features a collection of illuminated manuscripts featuring Apocalypses, illustrations of the Book of Revelations. The exact import of this isn’t clear, but the central exhibit featuring an illustration of a spider-like demon who inscribes the names of the damned provides something of a clue. Things go to hell, though, when on the Cloisters grounds Parker encounters Pudd and his sister and learns they have killed Shine and left his head in a nearby tree. A gunfight ensues, and Parker is saved by a quietly tagging along Louis, who manages to wound but not kill Pudd. An excerpt from Grace’s thesis provides (along with details of the ongoing deterioration of the Aroostock Baptist colony over both Faulkner’s authoritarian rule and the questionable and violent behavior of his children and the disintegration of Elizabeth Jessop’s marriage) the reader with the timely information that Faulkner’s main claim to fame was in the construction of hand-made Apocalypses, all marked with an omega symbol-which Parker had noted in the Mercier library.
Deborah Mercier then visits Parker at home and attempts to bribe Parker into dropping the case. He learns that Deborah, out of bitterness over her husband’s relationship with Grace, steered her in the direction of the Fellowship. Parker speaks to Jack Mercier and tells him about his wife’s involvement with Grace’s death and also learns that a new Faulkner Apocalypse was sold at auction by Carter Paragon, proving not only that Faulkner is alive, but that the Fellowship is connected to him, which set in motion to legal challenges of Mercier, Beck and Epstein. Mercier then formally fires Parker.
Parker’s next stop is The Colony, the religious commune he dried out at after the death of his wife and daughter, where he speaks to Dave and Amy, liberal Christians who just coincidentally happen to be acquainted with both Pudd and the Fellowship. (Okay, I’m inclined to accept a certain degree of coincidence in mystery novels-you only have so many pages and exposition has to happen some how. And while I can see a group of liberal evangelicals butting heads with the Fellowship from time to time, their connections and knowledge of Pudd require a lot of suspension of disbelief. Either Pudd is a figure know to only a small group or he’s the infamous boogeyman of the religious extremist movement. He can’t be both.) In any case, what Parker leans is that the Fellowship is not only a front for extremist groups, but even that aspect is a front for a very small group with the misanthropic goal of wiping out all humanity for being sinful. Pudd usually adopts aliases drawn from demonology, and the Pudd name is a twisted tribute to an American arachnologist. He also learns that, several years earlier, the Travelling Man had come to the Colony and asked for information on Pudd and the Fellowship.
Along with Louis and Angel, Parker breaks into the Fellowship offices and finds them empty save for some right-wing pamphlets. They then head over to Carter Paragon’s house and find it mostly empty save for many boxes of guns and ammunition, apparently destined for militia groups. They also find the body of Carter Paragon, tied to a chair and seemingly tortured, with a shard of clay in his throat. Back at his home, Parker is visited by the Golem, who up close Parker can see is both badly burnt and bears a numbered tattoo on his wrist. The Golem warns Parker to stay out of his way as he makes his way through the Fellowship members towards Pudd. Later that night, after some prompting from Angel and Louis, Parker asks Rachel to move in with him.
One of the things I find interesting about Connolly’s books is that he seems interested in making the “badass” characters anything but WASPy. Yes, Parker’s the protagonist, but if we’re going to assign the characters some point on a scale of who you don’t want to mess with, while Parker is up there, Louis, the black gay conservative hitman, is definitely above him. And so I find the Golem an interesting addition to this mix. He’s a minor character, more of an impediment than an actual character, but a couple of small details not only tell us that he’s fairly dangerous, but sketch in his background to explain why he’s dangerous. Plus, the idea of a concentration camp survivor turned assassin, with a focus on killing anti-Semites, ranks up there with, well, black gay conservative hitman in terms of ideas you don’t see anywhere else.
Prologue, Chapters 1-7
We’re at the point now where a map of Maine has to be included at the start of the book. On the one hand, it does give a sense of place, to be able to see how various locales throughout the books relate to one another. On the other, it’s the sort of detail I mentally associate with D&D-campaign inspired fantasy novels.
The prologue opens with the description of the “honeycomb world” as a metaphor for the secrets of the past coming back into the present in unpleasant ways. It’s an idea that informs the series as a whole, and formed almost the entire basis of the last book, but it plays out explicitly here as well. The rest of the prologue then focuses on the death of Dr. Alison Beck, an abortion rights provider and activist who is killed when she is locked in her car with a large number of spiders. Beck had been tracking the activities of terrorist groups tied to the anti-abortion movement, and was close to making an announcement of some kind with her allies when she was killed. The prologue ends with the discovery of a mass grave by utility workers in Northern Maine.
This prologue is interesting, not only for heavily foreshadowing the important details of the early chapters, but because this is a post 9/11 book, and the selection of Christian extremest terrorists as villains goes against the cultural zeitgeist of the time (and is the sort of thing that’s still a political hot potato, to the point where real-life law enforcement agencies are hindered by political squeamishness over calling nominal Christians “terrorists”). But Connolly is Irish, lives in a country with a history of religiously motivated Christian terrorism, and has the luxury of speaking unpleasant truths about American culture as a result of those factors.
In the opening chapters we find Charlie Parker doing business mostly in corporate espionage cases, not carrying a gun with him, and being free of visions of the dead for some time. He has even managed to rekindle his relationship with Rachel. Things start to turn sour when a client suggests that his line of work is sleazy (dismissing the fact that he himself hired Parker in the first place) when wealthy ex-politician Jack Mercer requests his aid. Jack wishes to hire Parker on behalf of his old business partner, Curtis Pelletier. Curtis’s daughter, Grace Pelletier, an ex-girl-friend of Parker’s because of course she is, has recently died and her death been ruled a homicide by the local police. The circumstances of the death are suspicious enough, involving missing persons, salt water soaked clothes, the gun in the left-hand when Grace was right-handed, and a no official cause of death cited by the coroner, that the eagerness of the investigating officer to close the file appears peculiar. Especially troubling is that Grace died while researching the disappearance of a fringe religious group, the Aroostock Baptists, and her last planned meeting was with Carter Paragon, a televangelist and head of a religious organization named The Fellowship, which has long been suspected of funding Christian terrorist groups. Shortly after taking the case, Parker’s visions return, this time of a woman and little boy in summer clothes too light for the weather, the boy with tape over one half of his eyeglasses and a board on a string around his neck.
Occasional excerpts from Grace’s thesis separate the chapters, and paint a picture of the Aroostock Baptists as a Millenialist group led by self-appointed Biblical authority Reverend Faulkner, who leads a group of twenty people; all carefully selected families with two children-a son and a daughter-and estrangement from other relatives, into deep Northern Maine, selling all their possession and living communally. It is, as Grace notes, a pattern of behavior more common with religious conmen than the truly devout. It should also be noted that the Reverend himself was accompanied by his own wife and son and daughter.
Parker’s second vision plays off of a story from his father’s time as a policeman, involving the death of Marilyn Hyde, who was brutally tortured and murdered after making eye contact with a man on the subway. Parker’s father rationalized this as being due to “dark angels”-people who are somehow more and less than human, divorced from empathy and who live amongst humans and prey on them. As a metaphor for sociopaths it’s compelling, but it becomes literalized in Parker’s dream. In the dream he sees an old man with dark wings screaming “sinner” as similarly dark figures wait at the edge of a clearing. At the end of the vision, Parker sees that he too has these same dark wings. On a character level, this is an excellent conceptualization of the thin line that Parker walks between doing the right thing and being as bad as the men he fights. In terms of the metaplot for the series as a whole, though, this is actually pretty much just a literal vision. There really are dark angels, or at least some believe, and Parker really is one of them. Possibly.
In the morning, Parker finds his mailbox has been filled with poisonous spiders, a detail of more signifcance to the reader than Parker himself. Parker’s attempts to speak with Carter Paragon are frustrated by the brutally callous efficiency of the Fellowship secretarial staff, as well as Detective John Lutz, a police officer who openly admits to working more for the Fellowship than the police force. Coincidentally, Lutz is the investigating officer in Grace Pelletier’s death, despite the location of her body being outside his technical jurisdiction. Parker has little more luck at the family hotel of Mary Becker, whom Grace was supposed to meet. Mary has disappeared and her clearly terrified parents refuse to give any information on her whereabouts. Further pressing of Curtis Pelletier confirms what Parker had suspected; that the reason that Jack Mercier was so involved in this case is because he is the biological father of Grace. It also becomes evident that, through both Mercier and Pelletier, Grace is related to members of the Aroostock Baptists.
Parker’s life is further complicated when Al Z, de-facto head of the local mob, refers Harvey Ragle, a producer of porn fetish videos to Parker for protection, with Ragle’s lawyer insisting that the job is related to his current line of inquiry. On his way to meet with Ragle, Parker is accosted on his property by a thin, red-haired man who has been following Parker through the last several chapters. He has arrived with his mute sister, introduces himself as Mr. Pudd, and is very put out to learn that Parker burned the spiders in his mailbox. Pudd rather lazily threatens Parker on behalf of the Fellowship and presses his card on him, which is soaked with some sort of venom. Parker meets with Ragle and learns that Pudd has threatened to kill him, after learning that Ragle has made “crush” videos featuring women stepping on spiders. The chapters end with Parker having another vision of the woman and the one-eyed boy. The woman, whom the boy refers to as “The Summer Lady” is clearly Parker’s late wife Susan. The placard the boy wears says “Sinner” and Parker sees himself surrounded by men women and children wearing the same signs.
The melding of the plots is happening rather quickly here, in comparison to the usual pace of mystery novels, to the point where even Parker is realizing that all the threads revolve around Mr. Pudd and the Fellowship. The obvious connections between the mass graves and the Aroostock Baptists are evident to him as well, so for once Parker is keeping pace with the reader in figuring out how data points fit together. The only things left for him to discover is Pudd’s history of violence and to draw the connection between Faulkner’s son and daughter and Pudd and his peculiar sister.
The last six chapters of the Charlie Parker’s second outing is pretty much a non-stop collection of violent shoot-outs, as the deck gets cleared of all the B and C plots so that the whole “oh, yeah, legendary woman killing bogeyman from the woods is back” story can be resolved. First off, we have Stritch attempting to kill Lorna Jennings in a Dark Hollow bar, only to be stopped by Angel and chased out into the snow by Parker and Louis. This storyline ends when they find Stritch impaled on a tree branch, obviously physically lifted onto it, and Parker begins to suspect that maybe Caleb Kyle has been watching him too.
We get a brief bit of exposition when Parker then goes to talk to John Barley, who is clearly terrified but not of Parker. After being threatened, he finally tells Parker that he saw an old man kill Rickey and kidnap Ellen Cole, then drive off and bury their car in a pre-dug hole. Barley dug up the body just long enough to steal a few things, but then that night felt someone watching him from the edge of his property. Parker tries to take Barley into town to tell Rand Jennings all this when they are ambushed by Tony Celli’s mean and Barley is killed and Parker is badly wounded, escaping by following a nearby river to, of all places, the Jennings house.
Parker learns that Rand Jennings has arrested Billy Purdue and is holding him in custody, but Lorna barely patches him up before the house is attacked by more of Tony Celli’s men. Parker holds them off briefly, but in the end is saved by the timely arrival of Angel and Louis, and the trio heads off for the police station, where they are again attacked by yet more of Tony Celli’s men. Walter Cole is there, and being in danger with Parker reconciles them, but mostly because Parker tells him he finally knows where Ellen is. He comes to this knowledge after he talks to Billy and is shown a picture of Meade Payne, finally realizing that the man and boy he met at the Payne house could not possibly be Payne and must in fact be Caleb Kyle.
The revelation that fake-Meade Payne was really Caleb Kyle all along isn’t quite a “fair play” resolution to the mystery, but Connolly actually did seed it to a certain extent. The final clue being an actual photo of the real Meade Payne feels like a cheat, since it’s information withheld from the reader. But Parker is also the one who failed to notice that the man supposedly living alone in grief since the death of his wife and nephew seemed not only fairly cheery but had a strapping young man of about Billy Purdue’s age just hanging around the farm. The added “clue” that’s noted, that Payne referenced a dog that Parker didn’t see at the farm itself, is more strained, as absence of dog is not proof of dog’s absence, so to speak.
In any case, this siege is cut short when Parker and Louis sneak out the back and pick off some of Tony Clean’s men, only to discover that, again, a third party is picking some of them off as well, only to have that business cut short when Al Z show up, kill Tony Celli themselves, and vaguely threaten Parker for basically doing a large part of their job for them. In the confusion, Billy escapes, and Parker takes Walter Cole with him to the Payne farm, sending Angel and Louis away because having two professionals with you when facing two surprisingly effective serial killers makes no sense at all.
At the Payne house, Parker and Cole find Elled tied up in an upstairs bedroom, they free her, but are unable to leave before the house is entered by Caspar, who would Walter and attacks Parker, only to be shot to death by the detective. Parker is then immediately attacked by Caleb Kyle, although Parker quickly subdues him. The death of Caspar is the only element of events that seems to actually unnerve Caleb, who offers nothing but disdain for the people he has killed, and justifies his actions with misogynistic ramblings. Parker prepares to take Caleb in, but is disarmed by Billy Purdue, and Caleb uses the opportunity to beat Parker and urges Billy to kill him. Billy is unsure, conflicted over the discovery that this raving lunatic is his real father. When Billy learns from Parker that Caleb killed Rita and Donald and Meade Payne, Billy instead turns the gun on his father and kills him, just in time for the anniversary of the death of Parker’s wife and daughter.
The epilogue wraps up a few loose ends, including revealing that characters who had dropped out of the story had, in fact, been killed by Caleb Kyle, and that Billy has taken after his father and skipped his court date to disappear into the Maine woods. The possibility of a reconciliation between Parker and Rachel is suggested, and the book ends with Parker witnessing the ghosts of the victims of Kyle, the Travelling Man and Adelaide Modine gathering around him, at rest and physically restored.
Structurally, I think this book works a lot better than Every Dead Thing, particularly in the areas of blending the various plot lines together. Although the search for the money that Billy Purdue stole has a bit of villain bloat, what with the mob and sexual sadist serial killers, it actually links up well as a complication in the main Caleb Kyle plot, with Billy playing an important role in both. Unlike the last book, there is no extensive plot that takes over a large chunk of the story with little connection to the main plot. It’s also nice that the events of the last book have real consequences for not just Parker in this book but for the rest of the cast as well, particularly Rachel and the Cole family. Unlike some serial detective/thriller series, physical and psychic wounds last past the last page. And while the supernatural aspects are more limited this time around, confined primarily to ghosts popping up at convenient times, the series mythology through line has still not really started to come together.
That’s…going to change really soon, though.
Exposition ahoy times with these chapters, with a smattering of women telling Parker how dangerous he is and meaningful foreshadowing.
First up is Lorna Jennings, who meets Parker at the diner and tells him how curious he is making the town and how Rand is scared of him, before talking about how Parker kills people now and the distinction between people who deserve to be killed and people who don’t deserve to live. It’s a subtle difference in phrasing, but it will be relevant when Parker finally meets up with Rachel again. This scene takes place after Parker finds a disemboweled cat strewn over his car, presumably a gift from Stritch, and the trio splitting up so that Louis can watch Meade Payne’s house for Billy Purdue and Angel and Parker can spread out to nearby towns and try to track Ellen Cole’s movements. The fact that a sexually sadistic hired killer knows full well where the three are is fairly quickly glossed over. The only significant clue Parker finds about Ellen’s movements is an armed-with-a-shotgun old man in a wooded shack whom Parker catches in a lie about “seeing ‘em” when he only asked about the girl.
Our first big info-dump is in Greenville, where Parker is able to talk to Erica Schneider, the woman who lived in the room next to Emily Watts before she killed herself. It’s a fairly long narrative, starting with Emily Watts being physically and sexually assaulted by her father before a man “comes out of the woods” to save her, by beating her father. And only occasionally her. When the man started to show up with blood on his clothes, inordinately pleased to discover that Emily was pregnant, she faked a miscarriage and ran away to a nunnery, the same one that eventually became the nursing home, to escape him. She was fine, until the day that Billy Purdue arrived and claimed to be her son, and fled into the night after both she and Mrs. Schneider saw a man climbing the side of the building and trying to get into her room. Schneider is able to confirm that, yes, the man Emily Watts was hiding from did call himself Caleb Kyle, and adds the clue that he was from someplace called “Medina.” After this, Parker leaves to meet with Rachel, and lucks upon the old man from the woods driving into a place called Stucky Trading, but is unable to follow up and catch his flight.
Rachel is, understandably, not happy to see Parker. Living in semi-seclusion and teaching, no longer taking private clients or profiling work, staying out of the public, Rachel has switched her research to the links between brain damage and violent behavior. Parker is only barely able to persuade her to help create a profile of Caleb Kyle by mentioning that Ellen Cole is missing and showing her the crime scene photos from 1965. After meeting with Rachel, Parker narrows the location of Medina to Tennessee or Texas and eventually speaks with the sheriff of the Medina in Texas who knows of Caleb Brewster, whose mother sexually and physically abused him, and who was in turn killed, and fed to the pigs, by Caleb when he was fourteen. Caleb served twenty years in prison before returning to town and staying only briefly, disappearing the same day a local girl went missing and was then found, hung from a tree, just as the women who went missing in 1965.
The next day, Rachel gives Parker his profile, which allows another bit of explanation and plot hole filling. Caleb, according to Rachel, is a sadistic sociopath, but his long dormancy period, outside of any proof of incarceration, suggests that his need to kill abated. The women who were killed in 1965 were left out to be found, probably as a warning, and the evidence that their reproductive organs were mutilated, when no evidence suggested a sexual assault, indicates that Caleb’s rage was at the death of his child. The new killings, however, follow a different pattern, with the the mutilations of the mouth a likely punishment for complicity in keeping Billy Purdue from Caleb Kyle. The two stand-out crimes in this analysis are the surveyor, whose presence probably drove Kyle out of the woods, and the sixth victim from 1965, Judith Mundy, who was never found. Given Kyle’s obvious desire for a child, Rachel’s analysis is that Kyle probably took her into the woods with him to force her to bear him a child.
Rachel ends her conversation with Parker by noting that Caleb Kyle’s primary motivation is his feeling justified in taking revenge out on the world. Expanding on Lorna’s observations from earlier, Rachel notes that, in this sense, Kyle and Parker are not terribly different. It’s heavy-handed, yes, but it also occurs in the context of catching up the slower readers on the themes and backgrounds of the main conflict in the novel. After this consultation, Parker returns, stopping only at Stuckey Trading to find out the name of the man from the woods, the not at all fake sounding John Barley. That Parker also finds that Barley sold Ellen’s boyfriends boots at Stuckey’s makes him of greater interest to Parker.
Most of the exposition here feels fairly hand-holdey for the reader. The background and history of Caleb Kyle helps ground him as a villain, but the attempts to compare him with Parker fall a little flat. Yes, Parker is a deeply flawed protagonist, but Kyle’s background, while explaining how he came to be a monster, still paint him as monstrously selfish and evil. Parker, though violent, revenge-driven and self-appointed arbiter of who lives and who dies, is still, fundamentally, a man motivated to do good.
This set of chapters opens with meetings. Parker meets with Lee Cole, who tells him that her daughter Ellen, who visited Parker at the start of the book, has not called in several days. Walter went to search for her and was rebuffed by the police in the last town she visited; Dark Hollow. Parker and Louis then travel to Boston to meet with a mid-level mafia intermediary, and superior of Tony Celli, Al Z, who operates out of an office over a comic book shop. Parker wants Z to persuade Celli to give Ellen Cole back to her parents if he has her, but Z makes it clear that Celli is being hunted by the mob because of the Billy Purdue business and broadly warns Parker to stay away. Parker attempts a third meeting, with Rachel at Harvard, but has to settle for leaving her a message with his new phone number.
When Parker and Louis return they find that Angel visited Billy’s trailer and found a letter from Meade Payne addressed to Billy. The trio return to Dark Hollow with the search for Ellen Cole providing an explicit justification that keeps them, from the perspective of both the law and the mob, out of the Billy Purdue search. Parker learns that Ellen and her boyfriend did come through Dark Hollow, on the advice of an “old man” that they gave a lift to. They stayed one night, and then none of the three were seen in town again. Parker wants to connect this “old man” to the one who harassed Rita and was seen watching Billy Purdue, but while the coincidence is suggestive he has no proof. Parker then meets with Rand Jennings, who flatly refuses to take the search for Ellen seriously, especially now that he knows that the man his wife had an affair with is searching for her.
Parker is left to voice his frustrations with Jennings apathy with Angel, prompting a long discussion with the short burglar about the nature of compassion and how men like Jennings would rather be angry at the world. Their conversation is interrupted by police sirens. The body of the missing surveyor has been found at the end of a private road into the deep part of the Maine woods. Jennings immediately decides that the man must have fallen and twisted his neck, but Parker notes that there is evidence of rope burns around the man’s wrists, and ponders the likelihood that, given the location of the body and circumstances of its discovery, he was more likely assaulted by someone coming out of the woods than following him in. That night, Parker has another vision of the dead, and Louis, in an odd moment of acting as comforter, tells Parker of the night in his childhood when Errol Rich was lynched and his Grandma Lucy “saw” the death in a psychic vision, suggesting that Parker has the same connection to, and responsibility to, the dead that she had.
These chapters are very talky, and what little forward momentum there is is focused on the side-stories and clues that the reader and Parker see add up to the bigger picture. In this case, that every act and moment of violence that has occurred brings Parker back to Billy Purdue, with the sole and notable exception of the disappearance of Ellen Cole. It’s the one aberration from the pattern that is developing. More importantly, we get a look at the flip side of the series. Instead of focusing on evil and the nature of evil, Parker and Angel have a long conversation about compassion. The conversation reiterates one of the main elements of characterization, that despite the violence of his life and his connection to the dead, Parker is defined by his compassion. The way the concept of “compassion” is spelled out here is interesting as well. Compassion is not recognizing your own pain and realizing that others can feel pain too. Compassion here is recognizing that others feel pain, regardless of whether or not you do, and that their pain continues unless you do something about it. To act otherwise is to act selfishly, which approaches evil.
And we’re back…
This set of chapters is marked by a little back-and-forthing and quite a lot more flashbacking. First Parker travels to Dark Hollow to find Meade Payne, Billy Purdue’s foster father and now the only living person to have any ties to Purdue’s past. Meaning Payne not only has potential answers for Parker about why those connected to Billy are being targeted, but is also in danger himself. Parker barely gets into town, however, before meeting Lorna Jennings, wife of Dark Hollow police chief Rand Jennings…and the woman Parker had an affair with the summer before he left for New York to join the police force. Parker’s memories of their affair, and Rand’s beating of Parker once he found out about it, leave little time for the actual conversation with Payne. Payne, according to local rumor, has had a rough few years following the deaths of his wife and nephew, and when Parker meets him he finds a sprightly old man with a gruff, overtly hostile young man Payne addresses as Caspar. Payne, stubbornly, claims to not know where Purdue is, and indicates he wouldn’t tell Parker even if he did know.
Which leaves Parker to drive to Greenville, the next town south, and meet with it’s chief, Dave Martel, for whom Purdue was once a regular problem. Martel is unaware of where Purdue might be, and is mostly concerned with the search for a lumber surveyor who is overdue after going deep into the Maine woods and the fallout of the Emily Watts death at the St. Martha’s home. There is still no clear motive for the suicide of Emily Watts and it is being chalked up to dementia by those in authority since she was, according to witnesses, running from the local version of the bogeyman, Caleb Kyle.
This prompts another long flashback, as Parker remembers 1965, the year his grand-father, still active in the police force, assisting in the search for six local women who disappeared. After meeting with a non-local man in a bar who seemed to be overly interested, and curiously amused, by the search efforts, Parker’s grandfather found a tree in the woods where five of the women were hung. A man fitting the description of the man he had met had been spotted near where each of the woman had disappeared, but the blood clothes of one of the woman was then found in the home of another local man, a mentally retarded itinerant worker with a history of inappropriate behavior with women, including one of the dead women. After that man’s death in custody, the cases were considered closed, with the disappearance of the sixth woman, Judith Mundy, officially considered unrelated. After that, the name “Caleb Kyle” entered the local lexicon as the bogeyman who kills people who wander into the woods, though the actual provenance of the name or its association with the woods, is never clear to anyone.
After establishing this background, Parker checks in with Angel and Louis, who tell Parker that Lee Cole has been looking for him. It seems her daughter, Ellen, is now missing after stopping to see Parker before going on her camping trip. This news is put aside, however, when Billy Purdue calls Parker and asks for help. Parker, Angel and Louis go to fetch Billy, only to find Tony Celli’s men there already. Louis dispatches them, only for the trio to find dead federal agents and the Canadian officer looking for Billy, who, it transpires, is actually Abel. Louis kills Abel and Parker now learns that Angel and Louis are not here solely out of concern for him, but because Louis has accepted the contract to kill Abel and Stritch. For the princely sum of one dollar, as it turns out. Timely intervention by the ghost of Rita Ferris prevents Stritch from killing Parker, but Billy flees, now convinced that Parker is working with Tony Celli’s men.
A significant amount of backstory occurs in these chapters, and Parker’s investigation is fairly meandering, but a few recurring themes do appear. Parker’s connection to the supernatural is reiterated, and the association of the name Caleb Kyle with the deaths of the missing women despite an explicit connection is suggestive of a kind of supernaturally informed group consciousness. The Abel and Stritch subplot also brings in the issues of human evil, and the degrees that exist. Abel and Stritch are evil and corrupt in unspeakable ways, and Louis, though a murderer, is set up as a kind of corrective to such evil. He kills, but only those who, on the scale of such things, are on the deserving end.
Parker opens these chapters with some actual investigation, going to talk to one of Rita’s neighbors, a single mother who sometimes acted as babysitter for Donald. Rita, it transpires, had been working “at nights” to make ends meet for Lester Biggs, a crooked businessman with aspirations of running an escort agency. Biggs doesn’t have much information to offer, only that the last client Rita took scared her so badly she quit and tried to leave town-the incident being what prompted her to ask Parker for help in getting the child support money Billy Purdue owed her. The only description Rita gave of the man was that he was old and wore clothes several decades out of date. Any further attempts to chase down Billy Purdue only result in Parker learning that Purdue hired a private investigator of his own several weeks ago.
Marvin Willeford is an aging alcoholic and the only investigator Purdue could afford, and even then he couldn’t pay him to complete his investigation. What Purdue was looking for was the identity of his birth parents, but Willeford only encountered dead ends; ones seemingly designed to end. Purdue was mostly raised in foster homes, mostly upstate, the last in the town of Dark Hollow. The records of his birth were sealed and his placement into the foster care system was facilitated by Cheryl Lansing-whom Parker briefly encountered leaving money and clothes with Rita for Donald, and the nuns of a local convent-since turned into a nursing home. The same nursing home where a woman killed herself rather than face Caleb Kyle, a tragedy overshadowed in the local imagination by the gang killings. Parker concludes his interview with Willeford only to get kidnapped and roughed up by Tony Celli, the mobster at the center of the recent activity, who is also looking for Billy Purdue.
Angel and Louis arrive in town to watch Parker’s back. Word has reached them of Tony Celli’s involvement and they are able to explain/exposition the missing details. Celli made a bad investment in currency bonds with other people’s money, and so he is hiding from his bosses. He kidnapped the daughter of an ex-Khmer Rogue agent turned smugger for the Cambodian mob and Billy Purdue made off with the ransom money when that deal went pear-shaped. Meanwhile, a pair of sexual sadists/assassins, Abel and Stritch, are looking to retire and have set their eyes on the Cambodian ransom money, believing Celli and/or Purdue to be easy marks. Of Abel, conveniently, there is no description, but Stritch fits the description of the fat man who had been following Parker. Louis, in a nice touch indicating that the characters are at least as quick on the uptake as the readers, points out that Rita and Donald’s death do not match up with the methods used by anyone looking for the money.
The chapters close out with Angel and Parker traveling to meet Cheryl Lansing. When they arrive at her address there is no answer at her door and they can see rotting food through a window. In the backyard the pool has been filled in with leaves, and Parker finds the bodies of Lansing, her daughter-in-law, and her granddaughters inside. Lansing’s tongue has been cut out, in a “don’t talk” message similar to Rita’s mouth being sown shut.
In contrast to the previous books, it’s nice that Parker is doing actual investigations and the characters are drawing logical conclusions based on the information they find, rather than following along in a killer’s trail and waiting for convenient murder attempts to clue them in. It goes a long way towards removing the “Parker is a chump” theme of the previous book. It’s also a nice touch that Connolly subverts the “all the cases are related” trope here. While Billy Purdue is at the center of both the murder story and the mob money story, he is the only common point of contact, and even the characters recognize that they are in the midst of two separate stories. The “all cases are related” trope is so widespread in mystery fiction, that it’s frankly a relief whenever it’s not used.
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Prologue, Chapters 1-6
The second Charlie Parker opens with horrible things happening at opposite ends of a stretch of woods. At one, two FBI agents listen in on what they believe to be a standard cash drop between local gangsters and the Cambodian mob that turns into a hit on the Cambodians, ending with virtually everyone dead. At the other, an elderly woman escapes from a nursing home, knocking out a guard and taking his gun, evading a police manhunt before killing herself, all in her efforts to get away from, or face, “Caleb Kyle,” the local bogeyman. Parker is largely unaware of this, alternating fixing his grandfather’s home in rural Maine and helping a family friend, Rita, extract some long overdue child support money from her ex-husband, Billy Purdue, a small time crook who has, in the past, done some work with the local gangsters who were out killing Cambodians the other night.
Parker’s life hasn’t completely settled from the events of the last book. Rachel is refusing to speak with him, and at the funeral for a cop friend of Parker’s, Walter Cole refuses to speak to him as well. The only bright spot, such as it is, is Parker’s acquiring of a private investigator’s license, though the only work he has been offered is corporate espionage cases that he feels are unseemly and beneath him. That, and a visit from Ellen Cole, Walter’s daughter, who is camping in the Maine woods with her boyfriend. But even these bright spots are troubled by the arrival in town of a fat, oily, palpably corrupt man looking for Billy Purdue, who has disappeared since his run-in with Parker. The clear implication is that the money that Purdue used to pay his child support came from very bad men who would like it back.
Everything goes to hell, naturally, the next day. Parker wakes up to discover footprints and a child’s toy in his house, and makes the realization that someone broke into his home and watched him while he slept, leaving the toy as some sort of message. This is confirmed when Ellis Howard, the local sheriff, arrives and confirms Parker’s movements after telling him that Rita and her son Donald have been killed. The suspicion is that Purdue has killed them and skipped town, but Parker doesn’t believe the evidence suggests that. Rita was strangled, and then her lips sewn shut-a message intended for someone. Donald had his head bashed into a wall, and Donald’s death in particular suggests it is unlikely that Purdue would be the killer, even in the case of a custody or support argument.
The parallels to Parker’s own loss are an obvious drive to the narrative; in both this and the last book Parker is motivated by the death of a mother and child. It’s the sort of plot similarity that could suggest an overuse of a problematic trope, but in context here it plays out more of a factor of Parker’s personality. He is driven to help people, to prevent tragedies, and when he fails he becomes more determined. That the murders are staged as messages, combined with the break-in at his own home, also reinforces the theme of Parker being dragged into these situations by outside forces, compelled to become involved. The fat man is interesting as well. Moral corruption expressed as physical ugliness is a recurring feature of the villains of Connolly’s books-though not exclusively, both villains in the previous novel had pleasant shells hiding their depravity. The actual, physical corruption though does play into the more supernatural elements of the series as the books progress.
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