The Burning Soul
Atria Books (404 pp, $25.00, 1st Hardcover Edition, September 2011)
Reviewed by Andrea Grennan
This is a rather odd review, in that The Burning Soul is the tenth book in a series by John Connolly, and I have not read the previous nine. I hadn’t planned on reading it at all, as reading the tenth book in a series seemed a bit like trying to watch Breaking Bad starting with season three, so I set it aside in favor of other books. I’d asked for it to review because I had read The Gates by Connolly and liked it a lot, so I thought I might like this.
Then one day I found myself with nothing in the house to read (in personal terms rather a disastrous situation) and thought, “Well, I won’t know what’s going on or who anyone is, but The Burning Soul is a book, so it’ll do until tomorrow.”
I was captured from the first page. The use of language, the mood so quickly and beautifully created, the building of a creepy and atmospheric setting, all wove a spell. I settled in with that lovely feeling of being in very good hands, and finished it two days later.
So this is the review of a book in a series that this reviewer has not yet read.
Charlie Parker (no apparent relation to the jazz great) is a special kind of undefined private investigator, and has been called by a lawyer to help with a situation that is in the gray area of being not illegal but entirely threatening. A man by the name of Randall Haight been receiving tokens that make clear his real identity (changed years ago) is known and in danger of being revealed to the world at large. This is not a spoiler, but given that Mr. Haight murdered a girl when he was a teenager, these tokens threaten his carefully constructed present world. The question is: Who is sending these items? Why?
Charlie Parker, a man who has personal reasons for really truly hating anyone who took the life of a young girl, is asked to find the sender of the tokens. At the same time, in a small town called Pastor’s Bay, a 14-year old girl has gone missing. It’s not long before the two situations begin to seem linked. As Charlie tries to unravel a past mystery he may solve a very current crime.
Finally, two men are on the run, having done something initially murky but involving other criminals. As the men seek a safe haven and perhaps a resolution that won’t involve their grisly deaths, they draw nearer and nearer to Pastor’s Bay. The book reads like a contemporary noir thriller, because at heart that’s what it is.
What I found incredible is that I didn’t spend most of my time trying to figure out what had happened in the other nine books. It could have been a stand-alone novel, but there were enough clues and hints to prior situations that I never felt lost but didn’t get bogged down trying to work out a backstory that I likely could never hope to guess.
In fact, so light were the supernatural touches that it’s unclear why these books would fall into the fantasy or supernatural categories for fiction. These touches weren’t obscured or left up to the reader to decide their own truth, but they weren’t a major or defining portion of the novel.
That said, The Burning Soul is just plain terrific. It’s clear that Connolly knows exactly what he’s doing on every page, and the writing itself fits the tale, a difficult task indeed. Given the darkness of the subject matter, it could have so ponderous and grave that the reader would give up in despair, perhaps continuing only in a grim determination and hope for a “happy ending.” A lesser writer may have tried to inject lightness that would have reduced characters to tropes and diminished stakes that are very high. But Connolly does neither, instead maintaining a neutral tone that gracefully developed the characters without making them, or their situations, appear precious or overworked.
As a reader who gets hooked on writers as opposed to genres, it’s always a thrill to discover a voice previously unknown. Given the sheer number of books now published annually (in any format), it’s no longer possible to keep up on all of the truly good work that is out there, waiting for someone to find it. I’m very happy to add Mr. Connolly to my personal list, and look forward to whatever he publishes next, as well as catching up on nine others that I now have to find.
Andrea Grennan is a writer and reviewer living in Michigan along with her problem-solving Mensa cat. Miss Grennan knows nothing of sports, but likes dissecting various books, movies and TV shows, using her University of Detroit Fine Arts degree and extensive knowledge of the classics to wear down those who disagree with her. Her tastes in the above are eclectic and wide-ranging, and include most genres and eras. Her blog will be up and running soon.