A Time of Torment by John Connolly review: Cut to the quick

The latest Charlie Parker thriller, an eerie tale of a village of remorseless cult killers, is as vivid and enthralling as anything Connolly has ever written, says Declan Hughes

A Time of Torment
A Time of Torment
Author: John Connolly
ISBN-13: 978-1444751574
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Guideline Price: £14.99

Jerome Burnel is an unhappily married everyman carrying $120,000 in diamonds for the jewellery stores he manages and a gun he doesn’t entirely trust himself to use. Happening on a pair of savage murderers and rapists in a gas station heist, Burnel kills them, saving three lives and transforming himself into an accidental hero, lauded by the police and feted in the street by strangers.

When a girl is found tethered to a ring in the miscreants’ van, she directs them to a house where five further bodies are discovered. So Burnel’s legend grows, but he feels nothing but unease at his newfound fame: “I didn’t kill those men,” he tells one of the victims he saved. “I watched someone else do it, and he looked just like me.”

As it turns out, Burnel’s unease is well-merited. Two months later, he is arrested for possession of child pornography; divorce and financial ruin ensue, along with a five-year jail term, during which he is preyed upon mercilessly by a core of tormentors, led by a man named Harpur Griffin.

The last time Griffin rapes Burnel, he whispers in his ear: “This is for the Dead King. Dead King. Dead King.”


Now the disgraced Burnel is out of jail and seated in the Great Lost Bear across a table from private detective Charlie Parker and his associates, Angel and Louis. Burnel claims he was set up: for the child pornography at the very least, and quite possibly to have been robbed and killed in that gas station heist. By the time Parker decides to take the case, Burnel has already been seized and taken into “the Cut”.

Like the town of Prosperous in The Wolf in Winter, the Cut is one of the imaginative triumphs of A Time of Torment: an area of 10 square miles of Plassey County, east of Charleston, it is also a people apart, a self- sufficient, ferociously independent quasi-mediaeval community, an irreligious cult, presided over by capable, ruthless men with names such as Oberon and Cassander.

Young men from the Cut are sent out into the wider world to range, “hunting for vacant properties to strip of valuables, easy marks to terrorize and rob”. It was Jerome Burnel’s misfortune to be targeted by two such with more interest in terror than in robbery, and his tragedy to have killed them.

About to whelp

Now Oberon, troubled at recent events, passes by the stable, where he has secured “two bitches who are about to whelp”, and prepares to enter the blockhouse, the dominant building in the Cut, an extraordinary structure through whose roof a great oak tree has burst, “there to commune with the Dead King”.

Starting with the odious Harpur Griffin, Parker follows the bloody trail, which leads inexorably toward a shoot-out in the main square of the Cut and the inevitable confrontation with the villain of the piece.

A Time of Torment is as fluent, enthralling and dramatically satisfying a book as Connolly has written; there is immense verve to the prose, and a characteristic dry wit ensures that the series of extraordinary events never teeters into bathos. No one writing today can render an action set piece as vividly, and Connolly's gift for imbuing the lowliest player with pulsing life means that no innocent death goes unattended; authorial compassion is dramatised, not described, and the novel is the more powerful for it.

For all the book’s kinetic highs and lows, however, the scene I liked best takes place in a university professor’s darkening office. Parker had previously consulted Ian Williamson when he was investigating the Green Man; now he hands back the books he borrowed, and Williamson gives “the covers of the volumes a little pat, like a man greeting his returning dogs”.

Williamson’s grandfather wrote a book in which there is a single reference to a “dead king”, and there among the stacks of learned tomes and the assorted religious artefacts, with the leaves outside falling “like all the dead days descending”, Williamson recounts the theory and practice of the Dead King.

In essence, it centres on a skull, augmented by the addition of further body parts from new victims – “as it is added to, and its potency grows, so too does its hold on those who created it increase”.

Chilling and still, it could be a scene from MR James or Conan Doyle: evil is embodied in an exotic totem of some kind; danger is abroad; caution must be observed.

Prof Williamson ends with a warning to Parker: “ . . . he wasn’t just referring to a talismanic object. He was speaking of an entity.”

The villain of the piece may not be of this world. But Charlie Parker probably sensed that all along.

Declan Hughes is the author of the Ed Loy series. His latest novel is All the Things You Are

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a playwright, novelist and critic