By BRUCE DENNILL
In South Africa, apartheid stories are still woven through much of the literature, using fiction as a way to investigate the way contemporary society is impacted by the evils of the past. In John Connolly’s latest novel, A Song Of Shadows, the latest chapter in the saga of his detective character Charlie Parker, the mechanism is another looming historical spectre, World War Two and the Nazis.
These are matters that require ongoing discussion, but they are also narrative threads that, if not handled carefully, can veer into cliché.
“You never lose money if you put a swastika on the front of a book,” deadpans Connolly. “Swastikas and kittens always sell. Figure out a way to use both if you can.
“But really, I was curious. My attention was caught by the trial of Hans Breyer – he was accused of being a guard at Auschwitz – in the US. Authors are magpies; we like to pick up shiny objects, and this case was one of those for me. Breyer escaped justice by dying the night before he was due to be extradited.
“That case got me researching how Nazi war criminals were dealt with, which was an eye-opener: none of my thoughts regarding the way extradition or any of those processes was relevant. For 30 years – 30 years – after the Nuremberg trials, almost nothing was done. In one way, you can understand why: there was no percentage in trying these people, while making use of the information they had to offer.”
Already, Connolly’s taken the conventional angle – straight good versus evil – into new territory.
He continues: “Horst Kopkow was a Gestapo officer who used to interrogate and kill British spies. Two separate branches of UK intelligence were interested in him: one wanted to kill him; the other gave him a deal – helped him to vanish from the radar in return for knowledge that would help them.
“That was only one bit of a moral collapse in which the only rule seemed to be, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’. It was actually the Russians who shamed the Americans into finally taking some action against Nazis in the States!”
This is a huge theme to fit into a fictional thriller.
“I want the reader to almost have a reason to feel sympathetic. It’s harder to sort out genocide in East Africa that it is to hunt old people you chose to ignore earlier. The nature of humans doesn’t change. We all repeat the same cycles. Eli Rosenbaum, the director of the Office of Special Investigations [or OSI, the unit tasked with hunting Nazi war criminals in the US] once said: ‘My only regret is that I was not allowed to say to one of these people; tell us all of the truth – everything – and I will let you go back to your families.’”
Is there, in commercial terms, a need for writers to tell these stories while survivors of World War Two are still around, and there is thus some sort of tangible link between fact and fiction?
“The perpetrators are all old,” muses Connolly.
“When they die, this will become sealed history, with an enclosure around it, in a manner of speaking. The commercial angle is not a consideration. When you write a book, the subject matter has to be something you want to commit to for a year and a half or two years. The OSI will close when these people are all gone.
“It wasn’t sales that suggested this story to me, it was the discovery that all my assumptions about a major part of our history were wrong: no effort had been made to punish the ‘stain on humanity’ that these people were, and that amazes me.”
It’s not only which is seen and scary that fills the pages of A Song Of Shadows, however. Connolly also includes a hefty dose of the supernatural in his story. Does he find that easier to plot around, as readers can’t really second-guess him when it comes to such an unpredictable property?
“Mystery fiction in its pure form is rationalist,” he says.
“There’s an inherent belief that there’s a reason for everything that happens. I’ve always had a deep distrust of rules in that area, particularly when it comes to the writing of detective novels. Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, went to séances to try and get in touch with his deceased relatives.
“I think that, in general, the assumptions most of us have about the universe are rubbish. For all I know, there are three different sets of rules in operation at the same time. And with my writing, I wanted to create a hybrid of mystery fiction and supernatural fiction. I have my critics, but I don’t think anything advances if you stick to only the purists’ ideas.”
Including a strong supernatural presence in a narrative also means that continuity into future books can be guaranteed, as characters who’ve died in one book can still be present in a sequel.
“Mystery fiction takes place in discreet episodes. Columbo doesn’t arrive at a new murder scene mulling over what took place last week, does he? Science and historical fiction are more comfortable with the accretion of material over a number of novels.
“I think mixing these ideas works well, but I also think it’s fine if readers get a little bit lost. People are smart – why spoon-feed them? It’s risky, though – it doesn’t get you the same sales as more episodic material.”
The mythological feel of Connolly’s writing extends to the make-up of some of the characters in A Song Of Shadows. Steiger, one of the villains, is such an extreme specimen physically that he recalls the Gollum of Jewish tradition – an interesting, if perhaps unintentional, link given the thread about Nazi activities.
“Steiger’s just a gun,” says Connolly.
“He has no morals. So the interesting thing becomes the people who use him and for what purpose. That’s another link to World War Two: perfectly normal folk became monsters because of the way their circumstances changed.
“I like using grotesques – Cambion is another one in this book. I remember interviewing James Lee Burke and him saying that he felt such people exist where corruption finds a physical manifestation. Cambion’s a little more complex than that. He’s trying to find redemption, which is ultimately what my books are about, I suppose.”
The line between good and bad is blurred in Connolly’s heroes as well. Charlie Parker is theoretically good, but is willing to do bad, and some of his associates are proven bad guys come good. Is that sort of dichotomy more interesting to write about or is it simply closer to reality?
“I’m interested by the questions that come out of those situations,” says the author.
“Questions like: What part of your humanity do you have to sacrifice to do some of the things these people do? My books are building towards a revelation – what is Parker’s purpose? In A Song Of Shadows, there’s a bit more about his daughter Sam, and suggestions that she may be part of that purpose – something that the trauma Parker has suffered gives him insight into.
“Burke said to me ‘I am the good people in my books’, but I don’t buy that. You know there’s a bit of him in the bad guys in his books as well, as there is of me in mine. Nobody is all good, which makes us interesting to write about. Even Pope Benedict – he was in the Hitler Youth!”
Is it difficult to keep developing such an established character in interesting ways?
“I’ve let Charlie Parker grow older and be part of a greater narrative. From one book to the next I make a decision as writer to throw out all my research and start all over again, which means I don’t repeat myself and that I stay passionate and involved.
“This book is also the first in the series in the third person. Readers no longer know his thoughts. The implication is that he’s changed.”
In physical terms, Connolly has all but obliterated Parker now. What’s left?
“I like writing these books,” he smiles, “but I can now – if I have to – end the series. As for what happens to Charlie, there are a number of ways we can go from here. I not sure what ending people are guessing will take place…”