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Onyx reviews: Bad Men by John Connolly

On the maps it's called Dutch Island, a habitable lump of ground in Casco Bay off the coast of Maine, but the locals call it by its original name: Sanctuary. In the late 17th century, the island's settlers were massacred and the very soul of Sanctuary took that injury upon itself. Since then, a tangible force keeps watch over the island, protecting it against anything similar happening again.

Joe Dupree is Dutch Island's chief of police, but he is also the guardian of the island's history, which has been passed down through the generations. He and some of the other island old-timers feel a storm brewing and can only wonder from what direction it will come. Strange, inexplicable things have started to occur that can only be harbingers that the ancient spirits are becoming restless.

The approaching storm is named Edward Moloch, a soulless thief, rapist and killer who escaped from prison with the assistance of some of his former henchmen. Now that he is free, Moloch has one thing on his mind: revenge on his ex-wife, who turned him in to the police. He gathers a team of like-minded sociopaths and they leave a trail of bodies in their wake as Moloch casts about the east coast for her whereabouts. Ultimately they home in on Portland, Maine and the coastal island where she has taken refuge with their son. Something draws Moloch to Sanctuary—he dreams of it before he even knows it exists. Once the bad men arrive on the island, communication with the mainland is mysteriously cut off and a fog descends that only enhances the island's already confusing landscape.

It's hard to pin a label on Bad Men. It's a supernatural thriller, but the paranormal elements are downplayed, almost as if they arise as a force of nature. In novels where ancient evils get riled up after years of dormancy, usually untold horrors occur, but Irish novelist Connolly depicts human beings who are, in many ways, far more terrible than the wraiths who protect the virtue of Sanctuary.

Some may claim that Bad Men treads upon Stephen King territory and, at first glance, there may be some commonalities: deftly drawn characters fight awesome evils in rural Maine. Connolly, though, is very much his own writer and if he ventures into territory already occupied by another writer, perhaps it is in homage.

His usual series protagonist, detective Charlie Parker, makes only a cameo appearance. The star is Dupree, the despondent police chief, a man of enormous proportions—over seven feet tall and as massive as Nero Wolfe—who is fondly known by locals as Melancholy Joe. Of late he has taken an interest in island newcomer Marianne Elliott, who begrudgingly returns the interest. She has many secrets that keep her from committing to a relationship. Primary among them is the fact that she's the ex-Mrs. Moloch and she has a satchel of stolen money in her attic.

Bad Men isn't subtle when it comes to violence. Connolly doesn't shy away from depicting villainy. He counters this, though, by populating the book with a series of intriguing and mostly good characters, and he devotes care to even relatively minor subjects. Still, he doesn't pull any punches when it comes to the fates of many of his creations and not everyone that readers become fond of over the course of this gripping and entertaining novel will make it to the last page.

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