The 18th book in John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series, The Dirty South is actually a step back in time to the aftermath of the brutal murder of Parker’s wife, Susan, and daughter, Jennifer, 20 years earlier. It doesn’t go all the way back to the beginning of his story, but almost. The year is 1997 and Parker hasn’t yet settled in Maine, or become a private detective. He’s out for revenge and the trail leads to the Deep South. The ex-cop left New York after the discovery of the body of a violent rapist pimp, beaten to death at the port authority building. CCTV shows Parker there but there’s no damning evidence. Parker, always a lone warrior in the NYPD, is further driven by the anger, guilt, pain and need for retribution over Susan and Jennifer’s deaths. It’s a dark road and unless he can recover a sense of meaning in his life he’s heading for destruction.
A lead takes Parker to Cargill in Burdon County, Arkansas, where a young black girl has been murdered. The gruesome details initially suggest a link to his family’s slaying but he decides Patricia’s murder is not related to that of Susan and Jennifer and is about to leave town. Then Evander Griffin, chief of the town’s police department, gets wind of Parker asking questions and takes exception to an outsider poking around in town business, particularly Patricia Hartley’s death. Patricia’s fate is a sensitive matter locally, with conflict between town and county police departments. The case was closed by Sheriff Jurel Cade, who claims the girl’s death was an accident and buries the case. Griffin knows it was murder but that’s no reason for a stranger to be poking around.
Parker has seen the files and that makes Griffin uncomfortable, so when Parker refuses to answer his questions Griffin arrests him, buying time to look into Parker’s past. In the time he’s been in Cargill, Parker has gleaned that Patricia is not the first young girl to go missing and that Cargill has a problem. While Parker stews in jail another young black girl is murdered. This time Griffin gets to the scene before Cade, sending the body to the state capital, Little Rock, for proper forensic analysis, determined this time there will be no cover up. When he realises Parker is an ex-cop with experience of sexually motivated killings he changes his mind about him, co-opting him to the investigation.
There’s no doubt Cade is covering up but why is he protecting a murderer? Times have been hard and the Cade family have always run Burdon County. They own most of the land and provide most of the jobs. Things are finally looking up and with Bill Clinton in the Whitehouse there’s money to be made as new business comes to Arkansas. A scandal right now would scupper the Cade family’s plans for the future. Parker will have to take on centuries of local patronage and privilege, white southern paternalism and cronyism in order to catch a depraved killer. There’s a chilling edge to the investigation as the history of Burdon County is revealed. This really is The Dirty South.
While A Book of Bones was a masterclass in labyrinthine plotting, The Dirty South is a more straightforward affair. Complex and intriguing but pared back, relying on character and a dark well of emotion generated by prejudice, corruption, racism and violence. In the beginning, Parker and Griffin are distrustful of each other, they need to work together but sparks fly between them throughout the novel. There are no supernatural horrors this time out just human ones. The darkness within Parker, who lives a twilight life since the death of his wife and daughter, haunts the story. As well as a gripping thriller The Dirty South is a credible study in grief.
As ever with Connolly, the novel is skillfully plotted and the Irish author is pitch perfect on the American setting and the deadly slow pace of southern life. The dialogue is crisp; the southern idioms and drawl are perfect and the tension in what’s left unsaid is palpable. This tale is loaded with poignancy and menace, it’s disturbing and mesmerising. Writing this good almost makes the subject matter irrelevant.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 5 Stars