I have never taken a trip via passenger train. I had been considering making such a journey until I read THE WHISPERERS, John Connolly’s new Charlie Parker thriller. There is a passage in the book involving a short train ride, an elderly lady and an invisible passenger that will stay indelibly fixed in my memory, and not in a way that makes me think of unicorns and cotton candy. I just know I won’t be able to get on a train without thinking of that scene. So that’s one more for the list. What list, you might ask? Well, over the course of nine Parker novels, three stand-alone works and some short stories, Connolly has managed to provide enough image-laden, frightening vignettes that I stay out of woods, try to avoid taverns, never look at or through fogged-up windows… The list goes on.
This passage is just one of the unforgettable scenes you will carry with you from THE WHISPERERS, a novel that is occasionally frustrating but ultimately rewarding. It begins at the commencement of the second Iraq War, with the pillaging of a museum of antiquities. Some items are irreparably vandalized, while others --- particularly an enigmatic box --- find their way to the United States courtesy of a group of veterans who are seeking to supplement their post-war compensation. Disparate members, however, begin committing suicide once they reach stateside. The father of one of these soldiers doesn’t buy the official diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and hires Parker to investigate his late son’s life and find out what may have caused him to end it so tragically. Parker is initially unaware of the smuggling operation, and thus is walking exposed to danger from a number of sources. The smugglers do not want him nosing around their business, given that his reputation precedes him, and figure that they can scare him off early with a bit of carefully applied force.
There is another, though, who is pursuing the smugglers as well: Herod, whose bizarre appearance reveals the rot and decay that inflicts his body physically and spiritually. He is a man of strange and unusual tastes and methods, and he wants that aforementioned box, not so much for himself, but for a client of sorts --- an entity known by many names throughout many ages, and is known to Herod as the Captain. In and of itself, the box is desired by the Captain not so much for what it is as for what it contains. And you don’t want to know the answer to that. Parker is not so blissfully unaware of this; he merely thinks that he is in mortal danger from a smuggling ring. Angel and Louis are there to help, of course, but it is the unannounced, unexpected and uninvited presence of the Collector that puts Parker on notice that what he is investigating goes far beyond the trivial affairs of Mankind. the Collector identifies himself as God’s Killer; he wants that box as well, and will do anything he needs to do in order to get it.
Connolly draws together elements of mystery, horror, suspense and, yes, humor to create THE WHISPERERS. If that’s not enough, he populates the narrative with what are perhaps the most riveting and unforgettable protagonists and antagonists --- some of whom continue to be sorted out after more than a decade --- that you will find in fiction today. Even the names of the characters are unforgettable. Herod? Just those two syllables taken together are enough to creep you out. There is also a passage near the end where Connolly flirts with a boundary, doing so in such a way as to render it shocking and horrific. In the hands of a lesser scribe, what is done would have been totally objectionable. I won’t describe it, other than to tell you that it involves the Captain --- who manifests himself in this scene as…something else --- and a man tied to a chair.
Extremely dark humor is present in THE WHISPERERS as well. The repartee among Louis, Angel and Parker is unequalled --- I would be first in line to buy a collection of such conversations culled from all of the Parker novels --- and one of the final vignettes in the book, involving The Collector and Herod, is unforgettable. You’ll never look at an ashtray again without thinking of it.
At times, though, the book reads somewhat like a horror novel wrapped around a political sermon. Having read nearly every word Connolly has published, I know this was not necessarily his intention. Connolly has made his political positions known in prior volumes, but always in a subtle context within the heart of the novel. Here, the discussion of those positions almost hijacks the story, interrupting rather than easing the flow of it. And that’s unfortunate, because some of Connolly’s best and most imaginative prose can be found here. Nevertheless, it’s worth wading through the political dissertation to get to it.
While THE WHISPERERS may not be quite the equal of some of Connolly’s other works, it is still a book you will not want to miss.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2011