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Road to Perdition

  The White Road
John Connolly
Atria, 2003
Rating: 3.7
 

Posted: May 23, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Over the course of three imaginative and densely packed thrillers, Irish author John Connolly has given life to one of crime fiction's most interesting protagonists, former cop turned figurative angel of vengeance Charlie "Bird" Parker. And throughout the previous installments in Bird's ongoing saga -- Every Dead Thing, Dark Hollow and The Killing Kind -- Connolly has proven himself a gifted and ambitious writer, deftly pulling off a delicate balancing act; Bird's adventures are grounded in the kind of real-world milieu for which the term "gritty" was coined, and yet subtly (and therefore believably) tinged with hints of the supernatural.

Believably, that is, until now. With The White Road, the fourth (and seemingly final) installment of Bird's adventures, Connolly's instincts get the better of him. Whereas each of his three previous novels has inched ever closer into Stephen King territory -- a world where the spirits of the dead appear out of the corner of our eyes, and Jewish golems stalk the earth seeking retribution -- The White Road sets up permanent residence. Not that there's anything wrong with that, necessarily -- Mr. King certainly has his place. But it's the aggressively non-subtle nature of White Road's otherworldly aspects that jars and disappoints. Elias Pudd, Bird's nemesis from The Killing Kind, reaches out from the grave to take up residence in the mind of a schizophrenic murderer; bad guys momentarily flicker, giving onlookers a brief glimpse of their true, dark-winged nature; and ghostly visitations, so masterfully eased into previous installments, lose all pretense of subtlety.

But it's not just in the tipping of the scale toward the spooky side of things that Connolly abandons restraint. Bird's adventures have always leaned to the heavy-handed: In Every Dead Thing, he tracks down a serial killer who's murdered his own wife and child, which is a perfectly plausible set-up for an Arnold Schwarzenegger flick, but a trickier thing to pull off for a believable and sympathetic thriller. But whereas in past books one could overlook the occasional lurch toward the grisly and melodramatic (a severed head left impaled as a warning, for example) in favor of skillful characterization and mood-setting, here Connolly piles on the chestnuts and the competing, complex plots. Reluctantly agreeing to help an old friend by investigating a murder case in South Carolina, Bird encounters a wealthy Southern family out to protect a dark secret. Meanwhile, the Reverend Faulkner, Killing Kind's chilling behind-the-scenes villain (and Pudd's father), is set to be released from prison on bail due to discrepancies in the prosecutors' case against him, threatening the safety of Bird's friends, his lover Rachel Wolfe and their unborn child. The presence of a grass-roots racist group looking to aid Faulkner in his post-prison efforts (and with convenient ties to the abovementioned Southern family) only adds to Bird's troubles, as does the racially polarizing nature of the murder case.

As twist piles upon twist and character upon character, one gets the sense that Connolly is losing control of an otherwise promising novel; the book's central mystery proves to be a compelling and well-plotted one as its secrets unfold, but his over-dramatic sledgehammer approach proves too distracting. And Connolly's attempt to further establish Faulkner as a deadly nemesis doesn't pay off: A jailhouse visit between Bird and the Reverend is an all-too-obvious attempt to recast Faulkner as Bird's own Hannibal Lecter.

Perhaps most disappointing, given this build-up, is the way in which Bird and his requisite Hawk-like, credibility-straining, other-side-of-the-tracks allies -- black hit man Louis and his lover, the Hispanic burglar Angel, with his own personal vendetta against the Reverend -- deal with the threat of Faulkner's release at the end of the book. This proves shockingly anti-climactic, undermining the sense of menace Connolly works so hard to nurture throughout.

The White Road, then, is both the most ambitious and the most disappointing entry in Connolly's Bird saga, so perhaps it's for the best that its attempts at closure suggest it to be the last. Better to end Bird's story before his creator's overreaching, cinematic imagination overpowers the series' compelling charms..

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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