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Onyx reviews: The Reapers by John Connolly

The title and the cover art might lead a casual browser to suspect that The Reapers is a horror novel. Only the small text (A THRILLER) beside the ominous bird perched atop the roof of the decrepit barn hints otherwise.

The novel brings back characters from previous Connolly novels, including Charlie Bird Parker, the former Maine private detective who has as much blood on his hands as any man. However, Parker has lost his license and is living a quiet life tending bar. He makes only cameo appearances until late in the book. In fact, he is mostly referred to only as "the Detective" until his services are required in earnest.

The primary focus is on Charlie Parker's regular sidekicks, a couple of murderers-for-hire, who make unlikely protagonists for a novel. Louis and Angel aren't ordinary killers, however. They're the guys who are called in when other killers need to be taken care of.

Louis witnessed a lynching when he was a child, black like the victim. Then, when his mother was killed and the authorities didn't do anything about it, Louis found his own rather unique method of evening the score. His vengeance is executed in a manner that gives him plausible deniability, even though the cops are sure he committed the murder.

However, he comes to the attention of a mysterious man named Gabriel, who recognizes Louis for what he is—a sociopath. He gives Louis options. If he stays home, he will certainly be killed because of what he did to his mother's murderer. He can move to another part of the country, though he will likely still be pursued, or he can join Gabriel and be trained to be the best. It's a difficult decision for a young man to make. Ultimately he sees the wisdom and inevitability of Gabriel's proposal.

Much or the book is shown from the perspective of Willie Brew, a sixty-year-old mechanic and "sometimes associate of two of the most lethal men in the city." He and his best friend Arno are caught in the crossfire when someone comes looking for Louis to settle an old score. Willie provides a detached perspective on Louis's business. He and Arno are ill equipped to handle violence on that scale. They may associate with murderers, but that doesn't make them any better at handling a gun than the average person.

Louis has more or less retired from the assassination business, preferring to live out his days in peace with his partner Angel, who was rented out to pedophiles by his father when he was a child. It's not easy to keep a past like Louis's where it belongs, though. For every person killed, there are those who remember—and some people have long memories and the patience to wait until the time is right to seek retribution for what Louis took from them—even if he did so only at Gabriel's direction.

Another former reaper, a man named Bliss who succumbed to the lure of money and turned on Louis, has re-emerged. Long thought to be dead, Bliss was badly burned in the attack that was meant to neutralize him. Now he's been hired to eradicate Louis, but he is motivated by his own need for vengeance. Gabriel is his ultimate target, but the only way to him is to pick off his minions one at a time.

For a pair of killers, Louis and Angel are amicable, likeable guys, especially when contrasted with their opponents. They live in a well protected building with the least likely alarm system imaginable—Mrs Bondarchuk, an old lady who occupies the ground floor apartment and reports all suspicious behavior to them.

Louis isn't the typical sociopath. He loves Angel—they quarrel and bicker like an old married couple—and he cares about what happens with Willie and Arno. In some ways, The Reapers can be seen as an origin story, explaining where Louis and Angel came from and how they became stone-cold killers. Readers also get to see who they are when they're off duty.

There's more going on than Bliss's personal vendetta. Louis and Angel are being manipulated in a personal battle between two powerful men, one of whom wants to eradicate everyone associated with his son's killing before he dies. They become the vectors of one upon the other, organizing an attack force on a private compound. By the time they figure out how they've been played, the trap is sprung and they must rely on Parker and his rag-tag group of idiosyncratic henchmen to save the day.

Though the last half of the book is blisteringly violent, the open sections are ponderous and glacially paced. If Connolly's prose weren't scintillating and fresh, many readers might be tempted to put the book down. However, the author pulls readers along through sheer force of style and characterization. Louis, Angel, Willie and Arno are fascinating people. Their interactions with each other are delightful.

Once the guns come out, the action carries the novel from one brutal moment to the next, punctuated by moments of tension-breaking humor that do as much to reveal the crazy world Parker and his friends live in than the ones where bullets meet flesh.

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