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Saturday, 9 January 2010
By John Connolly
It seems like only weeks ago that "The Lovers", Connolly's most recent addition to the Charlie Parker series, was keeping me awake. And now Connolly is back with another hero who finds himself in conflict with something not entirely of this world.
Instead of a world-weary private eye with a couple of hit-man accomplices, Connolly gives us this time a small boy (Samuel Johnson) prone to engaging his teachers in philosophical debates about angels and pinheads, accompanied by (among others) a small dog, the captain of the school cricket team, and an exiled demon with a penchant for wine gums and fast cars.
Connolly has made previous excursions from the Charlie Parker universe, most notably "The Book of Lost Things", a melancholy, but captivating, fantasy featuring a boy hero but no more a children's book for all that than is, say, Stephen King and Peter Straub's "The Talisman".
And "The Gates", too, is not entirely a children's novel; more a novel for adults who wish that children's books had been like this when they were children. Footnotes abound (Adams and Pratchett have a lot to answer for) and serve to supply a home for all those jokes and observations that writers slap down in their notebooks in the hope that one day they will find a bottom-of-the-page use for them. Lavatory humour is almost entirely absent; one or two examples waft delicately across the pages to satisfy the younger audience - for this will, despite my saying it is not exactly a children's book, find a younger audience; those who would never knowingly open a Harry Potter and are, perhaps, growing out of Roald Dahl.
The plot is satisfyingly paced and involves a scientific malfunction opening a gateway between Hell and here (here being a small market town somewhere in England), and a resulting attempted invasion from the underworld. Some very unpleasant demons (a number almost straight from the brush of Heironymus Bosch) wreak havoc on police stations, pubs, and village ponds, while resourceful humans (mostly of the younger variety) find a number of inventive ways of postponing the seemingly inevitable.
The way is left open for sequels, and if Connolly can produce them without slowing down the narrating of Charlie Parker's life, then that is all to the good. Although never, perhaps, inspiring midnight queues outside branches of Waterstones, I can see Samuel Johnson and his dog Boswell inspiring a loyal following, a long-running series, cinema appearances and inflating prices for first editions. I shall just go and encase mine in bubble-wrap in preparation for that day - or maybe not. Books are, after all, for reading, and I am sure that this one will bear another once-over in future.
Reviewed by Mike Deller