Until BAD MEN I had not read a John Connelly book since EVERY DEAD THING, his debut novel. I have no excuse; I liked EVERY DEAD THING and was apparently in good company, since it won the prestigious Shamus Award. But I somehow missed the others, all featuring driven and disturbed private investigator Charlie Parker: DARK HOLLOW, THE KILLING KIND and THE WHITE ROAD. I accordingly was sandbagged when I picked up BAD MEN. Somewhere along the way, Connelly went from a writer with an impressive debut to one of our best in the space of just a few novels.
BAD MEN is not a Parker novel. No matter; if you're a fan of Parker you won't be disappointed at his absence, for BAD MEN reads like a collaboration between Dennis Lehane and Stephen King, with Garth Ennis throwing in an occasional farthing. Parker does make two brief appearances that very tangentially tie in to the haunting incidents of BAD MEN, but the protagonist of this brilliant work is Sanctuary, also known as Dutch Island, a dot on the map off the coast of Maine. Sanctuary has a unique history, one that Connelly introduces early on here. The original settlers of Sanctuary were betrayed and slaughtered by enemies led by one of their own. The island took its own revenge, and in the intervening 300 years, things have been quiet, with its inhabitants being a somewhat quirky and, for the most part, harmless assortment of characters.
The island, however, is awakening. Joe Dupree is Dutch Island's policeman; nicknamed Melancholy Joe, he stands over seven feet tall and bears his status as a freak with a quiet grace that has earned him the respect of the island people. But Dupree knows the secrets of the island and can sense its awakening in response to the coming of evil. The evil is coming in the form of Ed Moloch, an escaped convict who has assembled a disparate and degenerate crew of personalities for the purpose of bringing down a long simmering and terrifying revenge upon the person responsible for his incarceration. Moloch does not know it, at least not initially, but he is on a collision course with Dutch Island, a place that has been calling to him in his dreams and that he knows intimately, though he has never been there.
BAD MEN is written in the omnipresent third person, a literary device that permits Connelly to reveal the thoughts of each of his characters. As a result, the reader is made aware of the nightmarish workings of Moloch's mind, which are not only driven but also infused with pure evil. Willard, one of Moloch's crew, is even more terrifying than Moloch himself. A quiet, almost angelic looking youth, Willard possesses a cruelty and yearning for mayhem made all the more frightening by the casual manner in which he wields it. The element of Willard's persona that is the most terrifying, however, is his relatively ordinary appearance. He's the type of person you might encounter without giving a second glance, believing him, at worst, to be a little odd, perhaps a bit mentally slow, without noting the feral intelligence underneath. Connelly exhibits one of his many literary strengths here, drawing the reader into Willard and Moloch's circle of terror by showing rather than telling the reader where things are going with these two. All that stands in their way is Dupree, a rookie cop and, of course, Sanctuary.
Connelly's narrative here is seamless. BAD MEN is not a stream of consciousness tale, yet it reads as if he sat down and wrote it in the midst of a 72-hour fever dream. You will never forget Connelly, BAD MEN or Moloch. And watch out for Willard. God help us all, he's out there too.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 22, 2010