"The Lovers" is John Connolly's seventh novel featuring his protagonist Charlie Parker. I started the book wondering whether I could learn anything new about this character, and I finished the book wondering how it is that I know him so little.
"The Lovers", like the previous six novels in this chain of investigations, is a look at the nature of evil. Connolly's imagination is, I feel, a wormy and earthen thing: his beautifully drawn characters all have unsettling darknesses in their minds and souls. The world that Parker lives in is vulnerable and available to the succubi and homunculi of early cabalistic and christian magic beliefs: Connolly's skill is to make it all so credible. The novels are at once hard-bitten-yet-vulnerable private detective yarns combined with the unreality-mader-real that infests novels like "The Exorcist". I use the word "novel" advisedly: various authors' books are labelled with this word when there is nothing new in them. With Connolly, you are reading new ideas, and the ideas are given to us with a luminous use of language.
These books sing of the heart and soul of darkness. They take place along the coast and immediate hinterlands of Maine, New England, New Jersey, and New York. They deal with cereal and ritualistic murders, with the clash between good and evil, and the confused way good and evil are to be foiund within each one of us. They deal with a few aberrant spirits that have been sent to torment humanity's existence: demons and imps of Satan.
This may sound corny, and on the surface it is. However, Connolly / Parker lead us gently by the hand through the mental and spiritual minefields that infest suburban and working-class America.
The storyline harks back to a constant that's seen in the previous Charlie Parker books. When Parker was in his early teens, his policeman father shot and killed a young man and woman in a field on the outskirts of the small town he lived in. The victims were unarmed, and threatened no-one. A day after shooting the couple, Parker's father committed suicide.
This fact of Parker's background has been ever-present, a brooding reason as to how and why Parker grew and developed the way he did. In "The Lovers" we learn why his father killed the couple. A thousand questions are answered, and a dozen new story-line posibilities are created.
Disclaimer: I am an atheist, and give no credence to the magical superstitions of any religion or spiritual legend. Yet I am happy to set aside my skepticism for Connolly: he just does it so well.
LISTENING TO: Jethro Tull, "Live at Montreux". Excellent.
READING: "Building a Web Site for Dummies". It's not easy finding out just how much of a dummy I am.
WORD OF THE DAY: Sunshine. Because it's so nice.
Here’s the story.
Mrs Jane McAlester (McAlester’s mother, and a woman who should have known better) was in her late 70s. She admitted to being in her late 40s, but as her eldest son, the politician, was also in his late 40s, many thought she might have been dissembling a little. No matter: she was an iron-willed woman, and not one to be gulled by a smooth-talking wretch selling the benefits of investing in property on Australia’s Gold Coast. Or so everyone thought.
The man she telephoned, Nigel Morris, had been a bit of a television personality, and was currently a talk-back radio host. Like many older women, Jane was fond of the talk-back: the chattering kept her amused, an occasionally she felt the need to pick up the telephone to berate some unfortunate socialist from down the line in Wellington.
But this particular talk-back host had, apparently, done very well for himself by negative gearing, and creative levering, and other such terms which were used to conceal true intent. He was a silver-tongued devil, and, anyway, he had been on the tele, hadn’t he. She called him one day, after he had finished his programme, and they chatted about this, that, and the hydrangeas. He was a very nice young man, and he offered to call on her and her friends, and talk to them directly about the opportunities that were waiting to be plucked from under the bronzed Australian noses.
And so he did. He came to Jane’s home, at the appointed hour, and Jane and three of her friends welcomed him and his companion in for a nice cup of tea, some salmon, dill, and cucumber sandwiches, and a chat. Three hours later, the four excited old women waved goodbye to the pair in their shark-skin coloured suits, delighted that they had grabbed the opportunity to purchase shares in a company which owned sizeable chunk of beach-front property in Queensland. Not a penny had changed hands. It had all been done with a few signatures scratched onto expensive paper. A month later they were advised that the company in which they had such a large interest had enormous debts, and their homes, the titles of which they had used to purchase the Queensland company, were now the property of a third company. They were homeless.
But he was such a nice boy, they said, as they crumpled their linen handkerchiefs. He’d been on the tele!
McAlester, of McAlester, Brunton, and Whey who was Jane’s youngest child, was a tower of patience and calm. Together with Henry, he investigated as much as he possibly could, all the while knowing that his Mother had been a juicy oyster, waiting to be shucked from her shell. There was a brief flurry of excitement when they discovered that the company that had purchased the debts (and securities) of the business the ladies had invested in, was part-owned by a certain Nigel Morris. However, it all died down as the papers were all found to be legal, and that the old women had made a costly mistake. They had been taken to the cleaners and given a fine old buffing.
And then Henry spotted something in the accounting. A small indiscretion that, if followed up on, may prove to be the undoing of the fine Nigel Morris who used to be on the tele. The fine, now rich, gentleman, whose fame as a talkback host had smoothed the path for this scam. Henry boarded a 747, and flew to Australia to investigate further – and, within two days of searching records, came to the conclusion that there was, indeed, nothing that could be done.
What happened next was simply divine coincidence, and Henry at his best.
The restaurant was called Edelweiss, and Henry chose it for his last meal in Australia simply because he liked the Sound of Music. Well, he would, wouldn’t he. He booked a table for one, and was attending to the menu when a certain gentleman and his glamorous girlfriend walked in. It was, of course, the well-moustached ex-television and radio presenter, N. Morris. Henry’s jaw dropped in disbelief as the couple went to sit at a table that was occupied by a medley of elderly ladies. He took a sip of his pre-dinner whisky, screwed up his napkin, and beckoned the Maitre d’.
“Call the Police, please,” said Henry, pleasantly. “I’m afraid there’s going to be a little unpleasantness.”
“Just phone the cops. Now. There’s a good chap.” Henry patted the puzzled man on the shoulder, and stepped over to the splendidly attired Nigel.
“Nigel! How very nice to see you again!”
“I’m sorry?” the man said. “Do I know you?”
“In a way, yes. I’m a friend of Jane McAlester.”
“Eh? I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Jane McAlester? Surely you remember her, and her friends. They invested in your company that owned a large condominium on the Gold Coast. You promised them riches galore.”
The old ladies at the table twittered, and one of them said that yes, they were about to invest in the same company.
“Be aware, ladies, that my friend Jane, and her friends, lost everything they owned to this sorry excuse for a man. It’s a rort, ladies. And he’s a cheat.”
And Nigel, reddening, swarmed to his feet and turned to Henry, shouting “You shut your lying trap!” and drawing back a fist.
What else could Henry do? He had no proof that Nigel had done wrong. Nothing he could take to court, anyway. So, Henry cocked his own fist, and dropped Nigel Morris with one well-timed punch to the point of the chin.
Five minutes later, he was in handcuffs, and chatting with a burly Aussie cop.
“Seems to me that toe-rag deserved what he got,” mused the cop. “Why don’t we just forget about it?”
“No. I want you to charge me. Assault. Battery. Whatever. I want what he’s done go onto public record. He’s done nothing illegal. Don’t you see? I’ve got to go to court, and I want a couple of your roughneck TV journalists there, to expose the scam. Otherwise he’s going to keep on doing it.”
Later that night, at the Leichardt lock-up, Henry held a press conference, and the next day the Leichardt courthouse was packed with reporters. Henry defended himself, knowing that he must lose.
The Court dealt with a few minor matters – burglary, car theft, a wife-beating (before anyone gets agitated, remember that this was Australia in the 80s: a wife-beating was considered trivial. Now, of course, it is another matter entirely. Australia is considered by many to be trivial, while wife-beating is treated as being a little more serious than, say, dogs crapping in the local park. Sad, but true.) and Henry passed the time in the holding cells with a deck of cards, playing Patience. When he was called, the gathered the cards together, gave them back to the guard who wished him good luck, and climbed up to the dock.
“Mr Henry Talbot, you are accused of common assault upon the person of Nigel Morris at the Eidelweiss restaurant last night. How do you plead?”
“Not guilty, your Honour.”
“You struck the man, did you not?”
“Indeed I did, your Honour. But there are extenuating circumstances.”
“You mean there were extenuating –“
“No, your Honour,” Henry interrupted. “Are, not were. If I should see Mr Morris again, I should feel impelled to once again vigorously sock him one upon the nose.”
The courtroom sighed and buzzed: now they were getting down to the potatoes and gravy.
The Judge felt a smile coming on, and quickly squashed it. He knew the story - he’d been well briefed by the Clerk of the Court no more than an hour ago. He looked at a couple of papers on his desk, shuffled them a moment, and the corners of his mouth twitched upwards. Down, you buggers! He looked at Henry, and pursed his lips. Give the man his say, he thought.
“Why, Mr Talbot? Why would you feel it incumbent upon you to, um, sock Mr Morris one upon his nose?”
And so Henry told the tale. He raised his voice so it rang through the room, and explained the dealings of Mr Nigel Morris in biting, scathing terms. He spoke at length, and in detail, finishing with “Your Honour, I know that Mr Morris did nothing illegal. According to the letter of the law, Mr Morris is as the snow. But his ethics and morals are highly questionable. He quite legally cheated four old ladies out of their life savings, and he was about to do the same when I saw him. I didn’t hope to knock any sense of responsibility or respectability into him, sir: I merely wished to express my great disapproval of him as a man.”
The courtroom erupted in applause.
“And, sir,” cried Henry, “I’d do it again.”
The Judge grinned, broadly. “I do believe you would, Mr Talbot. Where is Mr, um, Morris now?”
The prosecuting attorney stood, with an equally broad grin on his face. “I believe he’s at the St. Thomas Hospital, sir. Nothing serious, just a touch of concussion. I must say that Mr Talbot packs a good right hand.”
“My thanks, Mr Graham.” The Judge sighed. His options were limited: it was obvious that Henry hit the wretched man, and the law cried out for a punishment that fit the crime.
“Mr Talbot: I do find you guilty of Common Assault, and Assault with Intent.”
The courtroom grew quiet. You could have heard a villain drop.
“I’m going to offer you an option, Mr Talbot. I recommend you think carefully.”
A baby cried outside the Courthouse, and every head turned toward the sound. The baby quietened.
“I would simply deport you, but I am afraid that would prove to be no deterrent to any of your countrymen coming over here to biff another of your countrymen, and I would much rather our streets were free of brawling New Zealanders. No – your choice is between a” and he looked at Henry, and smiled, knowing that he was doing the best he possibly could for this big, honest man’s plan, “a $4,000 fine, the maximum the law allows, or,” and he slammed his gavel down at the uproar and boos, “or, silence I say! Silence! Or a month in prison.”
Henry grinned. He’d won. The story would die if he simply paid a fine and left the country. Now, the gentlemen and ladies of the press had an imprisoned martyr.
“You’ve been found guilty of Common Assault and uncommon decency, Mr Talbot.”
“If I pay the fine, your Honour, I’ll be admitting that I did wrong. Legally, maybe I did. But I’ll take the prison, thanks.”
“I’m not all surprised, Mr Talbot. We’ll put you up at a minimum-security establishment: I don’t believe you to be a flight risk. Now, I believe there’s a few people of the Press who want to chat with you: I’m sure Sergeant Jacobs and the merry men of the Leichardt Police Station’ll be happy to accommodate you and their needs. Take him away, Sergeant. Next case please.”
“Thankyou, your Honour.”
“Wait a moment, Mr Talbot.” The Judge looked over at the Police Prosecutor. “Mr Graham: you said that Morris was at which hospital?”
“St. Tom’s, sir. I understand he’ll be able to talk to people, such as reporters, within an hour or two, sir.”
“Thankyou, Mr Graham. I’m pleased we’re all reading from the same Prayer Book. Now, Mr Talbot: this conviction will make it impossible for you to return to Australia for ten years. I hope it was worth it.”
“It was, Sir.”
“Good on you.”
And the Judge looked up, and his courtroom was empty. The journalists had all de-camped to St. Thomas’ Hospital.
“Yes,” the Judge murmured to himself. “I shouldn’t think Mr Morris will be selling any more dodgy deals for a while. Next!”