Hodder & Stoughton, 20 August 2020
Available as: HB, 470pp, e, audio
Source: HB bought from Goldsboro Books
The Dirty South is one of those books published in 20202 that I ought to have got to last year but didn't (it was 2020, after all...) It's out in PB on 1 April - and definitely one to look forward to.
As somebody who only started reading the Charlie Parker series three or four books back, and so isn't up on all the continuity, it was good to be able to read this relatively standalone prequel, set before Every Dead Thing. Parker is already on the hunt for the killer of his wife and daughter, a quest which takes him to the town of Cargill in Arkansas, where young Black women are being murdered in a particularly grisly, staged way.
Cargill is a poor, dead-end town effectively ruled by the Cade family. The Cades have plans for the place - they want to lure a Government contractor to build a research centre, attracting good jobs and lucrative contracts. Nothing must be allowed to impede this, especially not bad publicity about the deaths of a few Black girls. Jarel Cade, the country sheriff, will make sure of it...
Bringing Parker head too head with a world of corruption and wrongness is not new for Connolly. However The Dirty South stands out in a number of ways.
First, this isn't - quite - Parker as we know him. At first he's focussed on nothing more then revenge, so when he concludes that these killings aren't related to his family tragedy, he shakes the dust off his feet and drives away. But not for long. Through this book one can see Parker watching, processing, judging, examining the grief and guilt of those around him and - in the end - deciding to help.
Also, this isn't a book overtly about supernatural evil (though there are some hints about the Karagol, that dark lake from which the town is named). But it remains a book about evil. Connolly is as adept as ever at conveying evil and corruption - which certainly are to be found here - and accordingly The Dirty South seems at times to weep taint, it's as though Parker is prodding and squeezing a decaying corpse, watching the humours leech out. There is almost a physicality to the evil that is exposed - the corruption reaching out tendrils to local politics, including the State capital and politicians, as well as to souls.
All that is wrapped though round a fiendishly difficult police procedural (for certain values of procedure - the Cargill Police Department and its Chief, Evander Griffin, are short of resources and support so a lot of what they do is rather... improvised). The investigation takes in cold cases, past corruption and incompetence and a firm desire to look the other way. It all makes for a tense, engaging read with an explosive conclusion.
Of course there are familiar features here: I don't think Connolly is capable of writing dialogue that isn't smart and on the nose, or of deploying villains who don't give off that feeling I mentioned before, that sense of moral taint, of dirt, and this book shows that off brilliantly. We meet a variety of compromised figures, from bent police to corporate fixers to those who dance to their own dark and secret desires. All are too, too credible.
I would strongly recommend, whether you're a long term reader of this series or whether you'd like a place to get into it. (And - we get an explanation of Parker's name. No, he's not named after the jazz musician).
For more information about The Dirty South see the publisher's website here.