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Bad Men

John Connolly

Hodder & Stoughton General

UK Hardcover First

ISBN: 0-340-82617-7

416 Pages; £14.99

Publication Date: June 9, 2003

Date Reviewed: November 24, 2003

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



Horror, Mystery


It's curious that so many consider novels of tension and terror "comfort reading". As the writer ratchets up the suspense, the reader sinks further into a comfy chair. As the characters endure the first stages of torture, the readers experience the first stages of torpor. As the writer kills off his screaming creations in a manner both gruesome and gratuitous, readers express their gratitude with contented sighs. When the violence reaches a disturbing level, readers put up their "Do not disturb" signs. For reasons both obvious and obscure, readers find stress-filled stories remarkably relaxing.

The clearest reason to enjoy toe-tapping terror is based in the vicarious nature of reading itself. The fact that you are reading about something awful usually means that you aren't experiencing something awful, unless of course the writing about awfulness is itself awful, and this is often the case. Then there's the predictability factor, the joy in seeing from a long way off where the writer is going with this or that idea. It gives the reader a sort-of sense of participation in the creation process. If we weren't smart enough to see the signs, we wouldn't be able to enjoy the tension they create. Those writers need smart readers like us!

But beyond the obvious there's got to be some other reason to enjoy novels like John Connolly's 'Bad Men'. In Connolly's case, perhaps it's the prose. Connolly writes with just enough poetry to be sensual and just enough muscle to shock. But Connolly offers something that must be dreamed of often in Hollywood. He can create "the buzz," that state of suspended animation in which the reader seems to be living in the written movie. Under the influence of the buzz, readers lose sleep, eat junk food, lay on the couch and envelop themselves in the writer's skill.

Connolly shows an instinctual ability to infuse crime thrillers with the supernatural. 'Bad Men' is a woman-in-peril crime thriller and a novel of supernatural revenge. Both elements are woven together with extraordinary skill from the first paragraph onward. 'Bad Men' is simply a novel about bad men and all the consequences of their actions. It moves with the grace of a hovercraft, over swamp, over water, over land, heading straight for a destination the reader can see with specially equipped Novel-Reader's Binoculars. In this literary zero-sum game, getting there is all the fun.

'Bad Men' makes use of those lonely islands off of the northeastern New England coast. Three hundred years ago, wimpy white settlers found themselves forced by hostile Native Americans to flee the mainland and make their home on the inhospitable but unpopulated island they called Sanctuary. They forced one of their own to leave, a vengeful, violent man, who returned to massacre most of the colony. The violence left a mark on the land, if there wasn't something there already. The descendents of those left behind still live on Sanctuary. The sole policeman on Sanctuary today is Joe Dupree. Joe is a giant, over seven feet tall, and known as melancholy Joe. He has a more intimate connection to the island than most others, and knows that something very bad is about to happen. That would be the arrival of Moloch and his men, escaped felons with an artist's love of violence. Lots of characters are going to die horrible deaths. Settle down, get your foot blankie and a cup of tea. It's going to be a long night.

Connolly takes his time setting things up in 'Bad Men'. He finely details his characters in prose that weaves effortlessly between lightly poetic and confidently transparent, as the situation calls for. These carefully created characters are carelessly murdered by other, even more carefully created killers. He has a deft touch for evoking unreal, skin-prickling supernatural terror. It's quality writing in the service of senseless violence, and it's bound to affix the reader to their chair more firmly than the weight set they've got locked in the basement gathering dust. Good thing they're not in a Connolly novel; those readers would probably be killed with the exercise equipment they barely bothered to unbox.

Connolly creates a cross section of humanity that's both appealing and appalling, but in all cases the characters have a touch of genuine life about them and don't seem like mere puppets being moved about on an invisible chessboard. Readers who enjoy Stephen King's mid-career work -- 'Pet Semetery', 'The Dead Zone' and 'Christine', for example -- will enjoy 'Bad Men', as will those who enjoy Dean R. Koontz. Connolly has the advantage of bringing some of that Irish prose mystique with him in his writing. Though the plot is a straight-ahead leap off a sheer cliff, the novel is detailed, nicely turned at the right moments from schlock and shock into suspense and terror.

Connolly adds in generous dollops of police procedural to his tale of supernatural revenge, grounding what could otherwise be dismissed as fantasy in a reality that all readers can easily connect with. And while Connolly offers up enough violence to ensure himself a sneer of disapproval from the MPAA, none of it is the kind of gratuitous wound-diving that churns the stomach. Connolly isn't out to horrify, really, he's out to entertain. To make the grade, he has to at least make the violence seem real. He most certainly succeeds at both entertainment and violence that seems real. 'Bad Men' is a rock-and-rolling good time. Hoist up a beer, get comfortable, and settle down for a bit of the old Ultra-Violence. These characters may not tell you the Meaning of Your Life. But in the safe comfort of your own home, they'll vividly outline for you the Meaning of a Life You'd Hope to Avoid.