31 March 2018

Review - The Woman in the Woods by John Connolly

Cover photo by Susan Derges
The Woman in the Woods (Charlie Parker)
John Connolly
Hodder, 5 April 2018
HB, 467pp

It is spring, and the semi-preserved body of a young Jewish woman is discovered buried in the Maine woods. It is clear that she gave birth shortly before her death.

But there is no sign of a baby...

I'm grateful to Kerry at Hodder for an advance copy of The Woman in the Woods.

I'm a latecomer to Connolly's Charlie Parker thrillers, having read my first, A Game of Ghosts, last year, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I discovered that there's a good back catalogue of these books which - for now - I'm saving up for those days when you just need a book you can get lost in with no fuss, no doubts. And even better, that there's an enthusiastic body of fans out there for the books - which is always a good sign. So, if you haven't read them yet, jump in and start. I think The Woman in the Woods is a great place to do that, but you could equally begin at the beginning.

So, what's The Woman in the Woods about? I found as I read it that lines of the Easter hymn "O Sacred Head Sore Wounded" kept running through my mind: "Death's pallid hue comes o'er Thee/  The glow of life decays..."

Parker's latest case sees him in a race against time, trying to find a missing child and solve the mystery of a woman's death before... others... can. Death, that pale rider, is ever present, in the person of Parker's rivals, especially Pallida Mors, sidekick to mysterious, dapper Englishman abroad Quayle, but also in a more general sense: Connolly continually tells us that Death is circling, that Death dances and rhymes, and indeed we see His (or Her) quirks and cruelties in the swathe that Quayle and More cut through bystanders and witnesses as they close in on their goal.

As well as following Parker we see this other couple of investigators press on, and I can safely say they're two of the most repellant fictional characters I've encountered in my recent reading. And, be warned, they don't hold back in trying to find what they want. It would be better if Parker got there first - far better. But getting ahead of a pair of killers who will torture and murder anyone who gets in the way proves tricky.

Behind this chase is a deeper mystery. Precisely what are Mors and Quayle seeking? How does it relate to the supernatural threats Parker has encountered before? Most of all, who is the Pale Child who seems to accompany them, and are they aware of it?

On a more prosaic level, Parker has his own problems - while Louis's partner Angel recovers from surgery, he's at a bit of loose end and gets into trouble. Connolly uses the book to explore themes of extremism, delicately linking up boorish, in-your-face racists; closet haters who avoid using the N-word but practice discrimination behind corporate facades; and genteel oligarchs whose poised manners and money-crusted clubs depend on the sweat of those they consider inferior. There's a delicate counterpoint - and many crossovers - between these worlds and the various cultists, devotees of dark gods and searchers after forbidden knowledge that Parker comes up against. It's all laced with portents of the end and blood-curdling prophesies of what will follow: Quayle thinks his work will be done then and he can die, Mors doesn't want to survive him.

This could make for very grim reading.


Connolly gives us the light as well as the dark.

There is a network devoted to providing refuge for women escaping male violence (Parker is very aware of the ubiquity of male violence). Some of its nodes are visible, some underground. All are vulnerable to the revenge seeking male, yet, to adapt a phrase, "they persist".

There is Moxie Castin, Parker's frequent client, who reads of a woman's body, found in the woods, and sets Parker to investigate, simply as a good deed.

There are others - little candles in a dark world, but casting light, all the same.

I've recently heard this mode described (albeit more in outright fantasy) as "hopepunk", that is, fiction which emphasis the small stands we can all take against the darkness. It's an apt phrase, i think, for what we see here. Parker himself takes such a stand. And while he may be up against formidable enemies, he has allies, too.

On another plane entirely, despite the darkness here, the possible grimness is relieved by Connolly's writing. Smart, sharp and deadpan in tone, not without humour, it's a perfectly paced slice of noir that never slips into noirish parody. Almost every page has an example one could quote - just picking one at random, how about "Parker left the church at the final blessing, trailed by the rest of a congregation consisting mainly of those older than himself. He hadn't managed to bring the average age down by much, just enough to make a statistical difference." The characters are also well realised, partly, I think, the result of many being developed by Connolly over the series of books. But even the newcomers and those just passing through (or who don't make it through...) benefit from being in a well-imagined, well-developed setting.

So despite a trail of blood, it's far from being a conventional horror where everyone is, in the end, going to Hell - though a few of these characters are definitely headed that way. Rather, it's a perfect example of supernatural crime/ horror/ thriller that just works, one every level.

Buy this book, sit down, and meet Charlie Parker...

For more information about the book, the publisher's page is here.


  1. Great review. I am a long-time Charlie Parker fan and can't wait to read this.

    1. Thank you for that. It was a great book to read. I see so many positive comments about Mr Connolly's books, I'm sure there will be a lot of people waiting for it!

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