John Connolly - on crime writing and his latest novel The Black Angel - partly set in the Czech Rep

John Connolly

John Connolly is the bestselling author of Nocturnes - a collection of macabre short stories, and the Charlie Parker novels that have successfully blended mystery with the supernatural. Over five books - beginning with Every Dead Thing - Connolly's main character, private eye Charlie Parker, has found himself in some pretty sticky situations. In Connolly's latest, The Black Angel, the character even visits the Czech Republic to learn more about the origins of a famous bone chapel. The author, who is Irish, spent a great deal of time in this country, coming back many times over the years. When I met John here recently the first thing I asked him about was Prague.

"This is probably one of the few cities in Europe apart from Dublin that I could see myself living in - since we're talking here in Prague. I came here when I was much younger, I came here at the beginning of the 90s and it was quite different. I was fascinated by its history. And, history has played a large part of the Parker books: they're very much concerned with the past and the impact of the past upon the present.

And, a few years ago I was reading a newspaper article, one of those weekend supplement magazines, and there was a feature on Sedlec and its ossuary, near Kutna Hora, and I just thought the pictures were fascinating. These pictures of remains of about 40,000 human beings I think and furnished: made into chandeliers and monstrances and they've been decorated in chains on the ceiling of the chapel.

Dating, I think, back to the 16th century, there are four free-standing bone pyramids, with later additions in the 18th and 19th. And that had stuck with me and when I began writing "The Black Angel" I wanted a kind of symbol or metaphor running through the book and Sedlec became it. A memento mori: reminding people that no matter how bad or good this life will be, it will pass. It will come to an end."

Within the genre what are the limits and what are ways of bending them?

"The big 'no-no' is mixing elements of the supernatural with crime fiction and I think it goes back to the very beginning of crime writing, when you go back to, say, the Sherlock Holmes novels and that idea that everything has a rational explanation. There was a guy called Father Knox who assembled what were called 'the rules of crime fiction'... but if we all abided by Father Knox's rules we'd still be writing Agatha Christie novels! It would never have advanced. But, one of his things was that no supernatural agency can be involved in the commission of a crime. In other words, you can't say 'the ghost did it'.

And people have tended to interpret that in a very narrow way and some still dislike any hint of the supernatural or strangeness in that kind of writing. At the same time they will allow things like 'cat mysteries'. Now, I don't know if you've ever read a cat mystery, but it's a mystery where, you might have guessed, the cat solves the crime! And it's not just a cat the kind of trips up the burglar on his way out of the house - the cat's going to get a sip of milk and the burglar is there on the ground - no, these are cats that think and care about human beings.

I have so many problems with this on so many levels, but my particular one is that of all the animals that are going to give a rat's ass if something happens to you, a cat is way down on the list! One step above an alligator but without an alligator's emotional honesty, you know? But, cat mysteries are 'fine'! Any hint of the supernatural is not fine. And that always annoyed me."

What has been an inspiration?

"I've always been fascinated by folk tales and fairy tales - particularly that dark European tradition. And, if you read the Brothers Grimm and you read the introduction to their 2nd collection they said that every society in every age produces its own versions of the same tales and does so for the same reasons. In a way we do it to deal with the darkness of the world: it's a way of putting patterns on it, of interpreting it.

And I thought that you can possibly see that break off into two strands: one strand goes off into the kind of ghost stories of M.R. James, these kind of creepy ideas that if you go off the beaten track, if you deviate from the path, you find that life is infinitely stranger than you thought it was.

And the other thread seems to go into darker crime fiction. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of difference between something like The Silence of the Lambs and some of those older stories. You can see the conventions of fairy tales being used by [Thomas] Harris. Cannibalism! Obviously! That great fear in folk tales of being eaten, of being consumed! You know [Hannibal] Lecter is like the troll under the bridge! So, there aren't such huge differences, and I thought it would be interesting to mix some of these elements in."

What elements of the supernatural for you are the most attractive?

"I get asked a lot whether I'm a believer in ghosts and I'm not. I'm a real sceptic! What interested me was that literary tradition but also the kind of religious element that inevitably comes with it. The Americans call crime fiction 'mystery fiction' and I think that's interesting because it allows a broader scope. One of the definitions of 'mystery', if you look it up in the dictionary is that it's a revelation from the mind of God that can't be understood by reasoning alone. That's how the Greeks would have understood it, or the writers of medieval mystery plays. Something that is beyond human understanding and it is that aspect that appeals to me."

Let's turn to your main character Charlie Parker. He's a former homicide cop who suffers terrible loss in the first book and that in many ways has defined who he is throughout the series. How much does Charlie Parker fit in within noir writing traditions? The kind of anti-hero who walks the fine line at the edge of the law?

"Ah, he is obviously very much a part of that. I was very much influenced by Ross MacDonald, who created a character called Lew Archer. And Archer at one point says 'I hear voices crying in the night and I go see what's the matter'. And I love that idea, the idea of a human being who could not stand aside and let other human beings suffer.

There was an Anglo-Irish writer called Edmund Burke and he said something quite interesting that all that it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to stand by an do nothing. And I think at it's heart the kind of crime fiction that I like and that I write is about the importance of not standing by. And you don't do it for the money.

If you read Chandler, if you read Hammett, Ross MacDonald, you'll find that the detectives in these novels don't take on cases because it's going to make them any money. They don't take on cases even because it's going to make their lives any better! They know that their lives, if anything, are going to become immeasurably worse!

Probably going to get beaten up; they know they have to ask questions no one else wants to ask. But they can't not do it."

You've said in the past that Charlie Parker, in terms of being a first-person narrator, is not necessarily reliable. And I wanted to ask you for an example where we couldn't trust his take on events.

"It really comes to the fore an awful lot in The Black Angel. He's offered at one point an interpretation of his life and runs with it essentially. And concludes a lot of things because of it. Particularly in the supernatural elements in the books: they tend not to be seen by other people. They tend to be things that Parker 'tells us about'. Nobody else sees them. It's purely his interpretation and it's offered up to the reader. It's clear throughout the books that there is another interpretation for everything that he sees. The reader is left to take what he says either as gospel truth or to take some of it or to dismiss it entirely."

Let me turn to another aspect of The Black Angel, perhaps a minor detail, but when you have street names and place names I wondered what parts of Prague are you familiar with?

"God help me, the first time I stayed here I was really poor, I was a student. And I stayed up in those awful student apartments up by Stadium Strahov! Now, no offence, but it had the most depressing bar I've ever been in, it was like drinking in Hitler's bunker! But, it was the one nearest the apartment and it was my first taste of the city.

Then, I'd come down Petrin Hill on the funicular and kind of got to know that area of the city, Mala Strana, the Lesser Quarter. And this must be my 9th or 10th time back here! The great thing is that I feel I've done all the historical stuff: I never need to see the Castle again! It's lovely, of course, but I never need to do that tour again. So, now I just get the pleasure of walking around it. It's a wonderful city to walk around: every time I come here I find something different or something new to do."

How in touch are you with your Czech fan base? All of your books have been translated into Czech... what kind of reaction have you had from fans?

"Great! I have a website and we encourage people to write in. I was getting quite a lot of mail from people in the Czech Republic."

In Czech?

"Oh, thankfully not in Czech! My Czech doesn't extend much beyond being able to order food in a restaurant and to say thank you. But, quite a lot of people writing in, and while I'm here I'll be doing some signings and it'll be interesting to see who shows up. You never know how these things are going to turn out, whether two men will come along and a dog and not even the dog's interested!

But, certainly through the website and we've been getting quite a lot. And my Czech publisher BB Art- it's not like they publish one and say 'oh, nobody wants to read that, sorry' - have been quite good about keeping up the novels. But, this is the first time I've been here to do something formal, otherwise it was always just as a tourist or to do research. So, we'll see what happens."