Subscriber OnlyBooks

The Dirty South: Probably the best crime novel you will read this year

John Connolly has written a kind of origin story for Charlie Parker

The Dirty South
The Dirty South
Author: John Connolly
ISBN-13: 978-1529398298
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Guideline Price: £20

Noir has always been aware of its debt to classical Greek tragedy, its heroes predestined to an early doom as their flaws and weaknesses are exposed and punished by implacable Fate.

In the private detective subgenre, the detective becomes something of a one-person chorus, observing, narrating and passing judgment. Very few private eyes, however, are as articulate in their lamentations as Charlie Parker, John Connolly’s tortured detective, who has been pursued by Furies over the course of 18 memorable novels since he first appeared in Every Dead Thing (1999).

In The Dirty South, which is set in 1997, Connolly provides us with an origins tale for Charlie Parker, although rather than bringing it all back home, as it were, the novel opens in Arkansas, far from Parker’s usual stomping ground of Maine. An unexpected choice of setting, perhaps, until we learn that Arkansas’ Burdon County is “the most dysfunctional county in the Union”, which makes it the ideal setting for the first appearance of contemporary crime fiction’s most compellingly dysfunctional hero.

Parker, we learn, is “unmoored” and drifting through the Deep South visiting sites of especially barbaric murders of women with a single burning obsession: “to find the man who had taken his wife and child from this world and tear him apart”.


Arrested as a persona non grata in the town of Cargill, Parker reluctantly tells Sheriff Griffin that he is investigating the brutal murder of a young girl in the hope that it might lead him to his family’s killer. Retired NYPD detective Parker is co-opted to help Griffin’s own investigation into the murder, which appears to be the latest in a string of killings of young black women that are being officially hushed up lest they scare away the investors who are expected to pour vast sums of money into Arkansas in the wake of Bill Clinton’s recent election as president.

What follows is a thoroughly engrossing murder mystery, albeit one in which, as is frequently the case with James Lee Burke’s iconic Dave Robicheaux, the detective discovers himself dealing in cold, hard facts while simultaneously attempting to give voice to the ineffable (“He saw darkness curl into a tunnel of smoke, and a light shining like a vermilion wound at the heart of the world”).

The birth of ‘Bird’

What Connolly’s fans might be more interested in, however, is how much of Charlie Parker’s origins are revealed, and here Connolly has a little fun at the expense of his hero’s mystique (we find out the truth behind that nickname of “Bird”, for example – it’s very likely not what you think). We get an inkling of what will become Parker’s raison d’être over the course of the following novels: “I don’t have to care. In fact, it’s easier if I don’t. I just have to make the killings stop. It’ll satisfy my sense of order.” We also get an early sense of Parker’s acute self-awareness, too, and especially his painful understanding of why his few friends and associates tend to be male: “Without Woolrich and a handful of other men he would be entirely alone, and it struck him that all were older than he, as though he were seeking to create out of them some amalgam of a father.”

And then, of course, there’s Connolly’s use of language. The epigraph that introduces the novel and states that “vengeance and retribution require a long time” is entirely apt given the arc of Charlie Parker’s future career, although the fact that the quote is taken from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities is even more telling. Connolly’s deliberately arch and formal style is an anachronistic delight in an era of minimalist miserabilism and lends a considerable gravitas to Parker’s musings on life, death and the afterlife.

A beautifully measured novel that is equal parts gripping mystery and an unsentimental meditation on grief, The Dirty South is very probably the best crime novel you will read this year.

Declan Burke’s latest novel is The Lammisters (No Alibis Press)

Declan Burke

Declan Burke

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