John Connolly

Irish novelist John Connolly.

Novelist John Connolly says the Irish have "always prized the way that something is said."

"It's not just what is being said, it is how the thing is being said, and we do kind of luxuriate in language."

Having been raised with that view of the conversation, perhaps it's inevitable that he's a fan of James Lee Burke, the celebrated prose stylist and mystery writer. Connolly first visited Montana about 20 years ago, around the time he'd published his first novel, to meet one of his influences, who lives part-time in Lolo and doesn't promote his books across the Atlantic.

"People in Europe haven't had the chance to see him, and it was the case of Muhammad having to go to the mountain, and so I came and interviewed him for the paper," he said in a phone interview. "As well, it was a way to say thank you."

Connolly, who's won awards for his mystery novels about former New York police detective Charlie Parker, said Burke is "the greatest American crime writer, and totally by extension the greatest living crime writer, full stop."

For Connolly's generation of crime writers, Burke showed that "genre" books could be just as well written as more high-brow fiction.

"He was an unashamedly literary writer working in genre fiction, so he became your trump card for anybody who said that, you know, genre fiction couldn't aspire to the condition of art or literature. You could just point them to James Lee Burke and go, 'Well, you know, there's your answer," he said.

Connolly is stopping here in Montana again, in part to get to see Burke, and to promote "A Book of Bones," his 18th Parker novel.

This installment sends Parker to England, where crime (he's chasing down his nemesis) intertwines with the supernatural (his nemesis might be immortal, there's a mysterious book called "The Fractured Atlas") and the folklore and mythology of Europe. Kirkus Reviews called it "a seamless, expansive, and chilling blend of police procedural and Gothic horror tale."

Connolly said the book is steeped in the idea of "psychogeography," the notion that "people leave marks on the landscape, and those marks aren't just physical, they leave the memory of themselves in places."

He chose Europe as his setting rather than America, since he liked the layers of myths and cultures (Romans, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, Normans) available to research and include.

He drove around England, visiting ancient sites of worship or settlements and taking notes and writing at inns.

"You're always looking to make people suspend their disbelief a little bit, and so I try to research the book so that 95 percent of what's in them is true, and then you sneak in the extra 5 percent under the wire, and when people begin checking all of the other things they find that out that yes, these places exist, and yes, this is the history of the church, and they're not entirely sure what's true and what isn't anymore, and I quite like playing with those things," he said.

He thinks of it like a film shoot. "I go away, I explore, I take photographs, I read the local newspapers ... I try to talk to people who may have lived there for all their lives and try to get a sense of the place," he said. "You know, we're all thieves. All writers are thieves, we go looking for shiny things to steal and then we stick them in books."

Connolly, who studied English and journalism, worked as a freelance writer for the Irish Times before his novels took off. He said his nonfiction experience feeds into the way he writes fiction.

"Newspapers taught me two things. The first is that anything can be researched. You know, if you're prepared to put the time in, you can read yourself into almost any subject, and it also knocked any sort of preciousness out of me," he said. He thinks of himself as a craftsman and that given enough work and attempts, "maybe something approaching art may come out of it." 

"But you know all art comes out of craft. All art is about doing the thing day in, day out, failing, making mistakes, starting again, making a whole new set of mistakes, and always striving for the thing you're never going to attain," he said.

Some authors like Harper Lee may reach perfection on their debut, but "the rest of us are always inching toward, not perfection, but getting better. Trying to get closer and closer to this ideal of the book that we had in our heads, this conception of the writers that we want to be, and failing. Failing. And that lovely line, that lovely Beckett line, you know? 'Fail again. Fail better.' "

Connolly has been praised for the quality of his prose, which has perhaps slowed his pace compared to what he could achieve if he were more mercenary. 

Recently, a bookseller told him, "the mistake I've made in my career is not writing a Charlie Parker novel every year, and just doing that. If I'd done that, he felt I would've been much more successful than I am, but I would've been very creatively unhappy, and I would be a poorer writer. We all decide at some point upon the compromises we're going to make, and everybody compromises, and you either compromise creatively or you compromise commercially, and you then have to live with your decisions. And you know, I'm happy with the decisions I've made," he said.

He's currently working on two adaptations of his work. One is a pilot for a potential Parker TV series. He reviewed the script but has largely left the production team to do their own thing.

He's not weighing in on the casting either, since he prefers that readers don't have an "idea" of what he thinks Parker would look like.

Readers ask him at nearly every signing "and I never answer, because readers bring their own image of the characters ... and no matter what I say, it would be the wrong answer for 75 percent of the people there, and suddenly every time they look at the book, they think, 'Oh, he thinks it looks like 'X,' " he said.

(He added, "If most crime writers were honest, they'd say that their lead characters are probably about 20 pounds lighter than they are, about 6 inches taller, 50 percent more attractive to men or to women, but otherwise look a bit like them, you know?")

His fantasy novel, "The Book of Things," is being adapted into a film, which he's writing the screenplay himself. It was based on his own adolescence and felt the need to try his hand at the project.

He's also written science-fiction and horror titles, plus a literary fiction novel. He's not shy about leaving his main genre behind. It gives him room to experiment and bring back to the Parker books. And, he noted, those are really about character more than plot.

"I think all good fiction, and regardless of whether it's genre fiction or not, is about character. Everything is about character. Plot is what characters do in a way, if you get the characters right and other stuff follows quite naturally," he said.

And in his crime novels, there's a balance to aspire to between other elements.

"There's no point in writing proper prose for sake of proper prose, you know. There has to be a kind of unity and a kind of relationship between the character, plot and language that is being used," he said.