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Sunday 17 December 2017

Investigating the art behind PI Parker

John Connolly: Of Death and Lost Things (RTE1) STACEY'S STARS John Connolly: Of Death and Lost Things HHHHI

A lot of carefully preened literary feathers were ruffled recently when novelist Julian Gough, who lives in Berlin, lambasted his fellow Irish writers as "a pompous, provincial literary community", obsessed with "scribbling by candlelight" about the country's gloomy past.

Gough was wickedly spot on, although you could never accuse best-selling thriller writer John Connolly, the subject of this splendid Arts Lives documentary, of being insular and backward-looking. Not one of Connolly's books is set in Ireland; he decided early on that he wanted to write hardboiled fiction, which is something you can't do convincingly through Irish eyes.

His most famous creation, tortured PI Charlie 'Bird' Parker, the hero of eight of his novels, is based in Maine. Though Connolly lives in Dublin and his widowed mother still resides in the family home in Rialto, he spends a lot of time in Portland, where he draws inspiration from local detectives. They're happy to tell him their stories, many of which make it into his darkly brilliant books, because they know they'll never write a book themselves. If you've read any of his Parker novels -- which have sold more than 10 million copies and been translated into 26 languages -- you'll know he writes about the place with the flawless authenticity of a native.

I have to declare an interest here: I know and like John Connolly. In the mid-80s, when I was editing a community-based newspaper on my home patch, The Liberties, Connolly came looking to do some work with us. Alas, since we were working with a budget the size of a comma, we couldn't pay him.

So I was genuinely thrilled when, in 1999, he received the biggest publishing advance ever paid to an Irish writer for his brilliant first novel, Every Dead Thing. Not everyone, however, felt the same. Connolly's critical, as well as commercial, success clearly irked the hardcore literary clique Gough described, who slavishly adhere to the dictum of Colm Toibin -- whose latest novel, Brooklyn, is largely set in Enniscorthy in the 50s (plus ca change) -- that Irish writers should always engage with Irish history and culture.

Or as Connolly, who admitted to always feeling something of an outsider, even in school, scathingly put it here: "Come back when you've written your novel about the Famine!"

Although Connolly's fiction, which is concerned with the nature of good and evil, and has lately taken a dark turn into supernatural corners, tends to be head and shoulders above many of his contemporaries in terms of style and intelligence, he has no truck with literary snobbishness or begrudgery.

"You write to feed yourself," he said. "I pay my bills through what I do. I'm actually quite proud of that. People don't read crime fiction to be preached at. They read it because they're getting on a plane to Malibu."

Eloquent, intelligent, evocative and mercifully free of the pretentiousness that often suffocates Arts Lives films, Of Death and Lost Things was a breath of fresh air. Much like Connolly's success story, in fact.

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