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Angel of Retribution

  The Black Angel
John Connolly
Atria, 2005
Rating: 4.2

Posted: July 9, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Throughout the course of his series of thrillers featuring troubled investigator Charlie "Bird" Parker, John Connolly has progressively ramped up the supernatural elements until his previous Bird book, The White Road, toppled headlong into a Stephen King world of shape-shifting foes and visits from the ghosts of murdered loved ones. In moderation, the contrast between the series' hard-edged, real-world milieu (reminiscent of Dennis Lehane's visceral detective novels) and its increasingly cinematic rogues' gallery of antagonists provided a nicely distinctive stamp. But what worked so well as shading in his bracing debut Every Dead Thing has slowly come to overwhelm the other aspects of the series.

If The White Road upset a once-delicate balance between those worlds of the plausible and the fantastic, The Black Angel -- the fifth novel in the series shatters it completely. And while the past couple of Bird thrillers have suffered a little for the mixture, The Black Angel is, oddly, a better and more satisfying read for finally committing to its otherworldly environment. Or perhaps "committing" isn't quite the right word -- the book's significant revelation regarding its protagonist suggests that Connolly has been gradually easing us into this full-on spectral tableau from the very beginning. (Here beginneth the Spoiler Alert; avoid the next paragraph if you don't want a key plot point revealed.)

Connolly's prologue pretty much lets the reader know up front that The Black Angel is going to drag him or her not just into the supernatural territory of previous novels, but far beyond it. The first sentence -- "The rebel angels fell, garlanded with fire" -- says quite a bit, and indeed the book's most prominent antagonist -- a grotesquely obese man named Brightwell, who seems able to ingest the souls of his victims -- turns out to be one of those aforementioned rebel angels, tracking down humans in possession of fragments of a map purported to outline the spot where one of the evil angels' leaders is hidden away. By the time Brightwell identifies Bird as a fellow former angel, unknowingly drawn into conflict with others like himself over the course of the series, the reader isn't completely shocked by the twist itself so much as impressed by Connolly's willingness to jump firmly into a landscape that irrevocably alters one's perception of what's come before.

Not that it's a bad thing. As with, say, an M. Night Shyamalan film, when the moment comes, you either go with it or you don't. And once you make the decision to follow wherever The Black Angel takes you, it proves to be one of Connolly's most satisfying books. It helps that it doesn't quite abandon the coarse, street-level world of the earlier books in the series; parts involving the quest for an abusive pimp in New York City -- who made the mistake of laying hands on the elderly aunt of Bird's contract-killer friend Louis -- help ground the series in the detective-thriller version of "reality," and provide ballast for later scenes that set the story's fantasy elements into place.

There are some less-than-satisfactory elements of The Black Angel, most of which are reflective of the series as a whole. A subplot involving the growing estrangement between Bird and his lover Rachel Wolfe -- the couple now have a young daughter -- feels forced, as do many characters' reactions to Parker, who often broods about the very bad things of which he's capable. Frankly, Parker doth seem to protest too much, and his actions feel like an attempt to build an aura of brooding dangerousness that verges on adolescent narcissism. These personal scenes work better when the characters explore the idea that Parker rushes into perilous situations even when they have very little do with him, a compulsion born out of seeing himself as a kind of avenging spirit.

Elsewhere, Parker's close relationship to both the killer Louis and his lover, the burglar Angel, has never been satisfactorily explained. And a tacked-on ending, a resolution involving a very minor character briefly glimpsed early on, is just feel-good overkill.

But those nagging concerns aren't enough to capsize The Black Angel, although it does often threaten to buckle under the weight of its many characters and situations. Mostly, it moves briskly along, carried by Connolly's tension-building prose. The heightened fantasy elements don't obscure the fact that he's still a very competent craftsman of page-turning thrillers. The Black Angel, more than any of his previous works, proves that he's deft at combining those two elements into something daring and compulsively readable. It also, more than any of his past works, makes one wonder what else he's capable of.

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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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