“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Monday, January 25, 2016
The collection opens with the Edgar Award-winning tale of ‘The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository’, a delightfully absurd story about an institution to which the memorable characters of fiction retire to live for eternity once their creators have shuffled off this mortal coil. The note of whimsy may not set the tone for the rest of the collection, but its theme – the way in which fiction can rewrite reality – certainly does.
That theme is directly addressed in the collection’s centre-piece, ‘The Fractured Atlas – Five Fragments’. The first fragment finds the Huguenot refugee Couvret in Amsterdam, where he encounters a book “that is like being in contact with a living thing. It pulses, and smells of blood.” Each of the five fragments explores the evil potential of this book: when an investigator searching for Lionel Maulding, the missing owner of the book, mocks the possibility that the book is ‘rewriting the world’, he is told firmly that, “The world is forever being altered by books.”
In the midst of ‘The Fractured Atlas’ is the collection’s finest moment, the novella-length and M.R. James-influenced ‘The Wanderer in Unknown Realms’, in which the WWI veteran searching for Lionel Maulding might be experiencing the world being redrafted by an evil tome; equally, he might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by the horrors he witnessed in the trenches.
Other elements from Connolly’s fiction resurface during the collection. ‘Razorshins’, set in Maine, is a story that draws upon the folklore of the great North Woods as Connolly resurrects the mythical ‘wendigo’. The fascination with theoretical physics Connolly explores in his young adult novels featuring Samuel Johnson returns in ‘The Wanderer in Unknown Realms’, as the author references William James’ concept of ‘the multiverse’; in ‘The Children of Dr Lyall’, set in London during WWII, Connolly explores an existential kind of horror in a story that blends abortion and quantum physics.
Elsewhere, ‘The Hollow King’ offers a return to ‘the Universe of The Book of Lost Things’, an offshoot from the standalone novel published in 2006 that goes to the dark heart of the fairytale form to evoke Charles Perrault. ‘On The Anatomization of an Unknown Man (1637) by Frans Mier’ is pure Edgar Allen Poe; ‘Lazarus’ goes back to the New Testament for its inspiration, as the resurrected Lazarus, adrift and zombie-like, fears that “some great wrong has been committed in the name of pity and love.” ‘The Haunting’, meanwhile, is the boldest statement of intent title-wise; in fact, it’s a love story, and one of the most affecting in the collection.
In a collection crackling with invention and ambition, Connolly saves the best for (almost) last. ‘Holmes on the Range’ is a very funny offshoot from ‘The Caxton Private Lending Library and Book Depository’, in which Sherlock Holmes arrives at the library in the wake of his infamous death at the Reichenbach Falls, only to belatedly discover that his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle (as countless authors have done since), has begun to rewrite his character. Is it conceivable that the immortal Holmes and Watson might – gasp! – be ‘replaced at some future date by alternative versions of themselves’?
The rest, as they say, is history …
This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.