The Nameless Ones

Robert Pimm
Robert Pimm

Who knew that a conscience could be contagious? – Angel, musing, in The Nameless Ones

I received my copy of The Nameless Ones, No. 19 in John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series, the other day. I put down the book I was reading (the pretty good Die Tote vom Naschmarkt by Beate Maxian) and read The Nameless Ones at pace.

I’ve blogged before about why you should read John Connolly’s Charlie Parker Novels. The Nameless Ones contains many of the elements that make the novels compulsive:

  • villains of the utmost evil, pursued by good clad in elegant garb (contract killer Louis) or driven by suffering and, almost against his will, a desire to do good (Louis’s sidekick Angel);
  • a brilliant sense of place. Chunks of the story take place in Vienna, where I live, including the splendid Cemetery of the Nameless Ones, from which the novel takes its name. Connolly’s interest in the relationship between place and story, noted in my review at the link above, still thrives;
  • plenty of spooky, but possibly deniable, paranormal activity. One character – not Charlie Parker – can see dead people, and a couple – including Louis – have powerful intuition;
  • John Connolly sketches out the characters, as always, with deftness and elan;
  • plenty of cool epigrams and wisdom, often at the expense of unpopular professions, eg lawyers.

A few examples of each follow.

The cover of my copy. You can buy the book here

Utmost evil vs Louis

I enjoyed this description of Spiridon Vuksan. Definitely a bad guy:

  • Spiridon had kindness in his eyes but – as with his brother – it was painted on glass, and whatever reality lay behind them was revealed in the work of his hands. Had it been possible to excise the orbs, leaving only the ocular hollows, one might have discerned a cloudy blackness resembling ink in water, a mass that occasionally assumed the form of something ancient and predatory, an entity that would feed even when untroubled by hunger, for the pleasure of tearing another living creature apart.

The Nameless Ones, like other Charlie Parker novels, has grisly bits. A scene in a house in Amsterdam, in particular, is not for the squeamish.

As for Louis, a character describes him thus:

  • ‘There are plagues that have killed fewer people.’

Sense of place

Connolly is rather tough on Austria:

  • Austria… a country that somehow managed to remain simultaneously part of, yet apart from, the larger European community, and with which most of Europe’s citizens would have struggled to make very many associations at all beyond white horses, Danube waltzes, and an unfortunate connection with the progenitor of Nazism.

But he highlights a number of beautiful corners of Vienna, including the Friedhof der Namenlosen, or cemetery of the nameless ones, where three scenes take place:

  • In Simmering, just beyond Vienna’s southern limits, lies a small, rarely visited cemetery… the final resting place of more than one hundred people, the majority of them unidentified… their plots marked, for the most part, by identical crucifixes, some with candles or flowers placed there by well-wishers or the fishermen of Albern, who gather to remember these unfortunates each All Saints’ Day.

Paranormal activity

I’ve always been intrigued by Connolly’s ability to weave into his grisly thrillers elements of the paranormal, even if he says he himself has never had a supernatural experience. I think it works well:

  • ‘I’ve got a feeling, like something scratching at my brain.’… When Louis was disturbed like this – and such instances were rare – clouds were gathering. It was not a psychic ability, or any form of sixth sense. It was simply a function of Louis’s instinct for self-preservation.

One spooky character (no spoilers) actually sees a dead person – again, no spoilers as to who the dead person is, but it’s an important individual we know, and feel for, from previous books. The same spooky character also see Louis, coming to hunt her down: ‘One of the men I saw was black.’

Great characters

I enjoyed numerous well-sketched players in The Nameless Ones:

  • Zorya… smelled of a combination of dryness and dampness, like an ancient cavern through which water once had flowed.
  • It was strange, Angel thought, how many people they had come to care about. It had not always been this way. He blamed Charlie Parker. Who knew that a conscience could be contagious? [Comment: The Nameless Ones shows us a bit more of the relationship between Louis and Angel as they age and, possibly, mellow]
  • Paulie Fulci was curled up on a bench beneath the bear head that was the bar’s mascot, working on a crossword puzzle. Dave, who was checking accounts at the bar, had almost fallen from his stool in shock upon being told this, only to discover that it was a crossword puzzle in a comic book with a pony on the front cover. Still, it represented progress, of a sort.
  • He was shorter and less well built than Tony – there were parking garages less structurally impressive than Tony Fulci.

Epigrams and wisdom

The book is full of both. I noted a few gems:

  • Money could not buy loyalty indefinitely, and the word of a politician was written in smoke.
  • Anton Frend, like all gamblers, was in love with risk, and men who become besotted with hazard also grow accustomed to it. In this it resembles other vices: the practice becomes habitual, and what is habitual inevitably becomes dull, thereby requiring greater extremes of behaviour in return for rewards that will, at best, plateau.
  • ‘People love conspiracies,’ said Harris. ‘They find them reassuring. It’s the consolation that someone, somewhere, might actually have a design in mind. The fearful embrace conspiracies for the same reason they believe in God.’
  • ‘Politicians are like haemorrhoids: they’re a torment to be endured.’
  • One of the problem with using crooked bankers – or rather, bankers who were more crooked than the norm – was the obvious: their essential dishonesty.

Not much Charlie Parker?

I have seen some readers expressing regret that Charlie Parker does not feature much in The Nameless Ones. Indeed, he is conspicuous by his absence: he appears briefly, twice, but barely influences events.

I am not sure this matters. On the one hand I like the idea, on view in the early John Connolly thrillers I read a year or two back, of putting the extraordinarily well-developed character that is Charlie “Bird” Parker at the centre of the action. Describing things from Parker’s point of view as a first person narrator is a great way to introduce some laugh-out-loud comic lines.

This is less obvious in The Nameless Ones. But telling things from the point of view of the elegant Louis also enables some fine jokes, eg:

  • Louis checked into a room decorated by someone who had never encountered a shade of grey he didn’t like.

Given that The Nameless Ones has a fine story, great characters and moves along at a swift pace, I don’t see that the absence of Charlie Parker himself should deter fans.

I might add that in addition to Charlie Parker himself appearing a couple of times, The Nameless Ones also features, spookily, another member of the Parker family, playing a key cameo role. No spoilers here. Enjoy the book.

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