When my children were young, we always had a book we'd read aloud together before bed. Over the years, we made our way through modern classics such as Lois Lowry's "The Giver," and staples from my childhood like Norton Juster's "The Phantom Tollbooth." As I was reading John Connolly's whimsical and wicked "adult book for children," oh my, did I miss having a child around.
Connolly's tale screams to be shared. A young boy, Samuel Johnson, and his dachshund, Boswell, go trick or treating early, but they end up with more than a handful of Tootsie Rolls. Samuel discovers his neighbors, the Abernathys, have unwittingly opened a portal to hell in their basement. Eventually our hero has to find a way to stop all things evil "ending up here."
The plot appeals to all of us who, on occasion, hear "tentacles being folded" under our beds. But it's the tone, the details and the allusions Connolly layers into the story that make it such a delight.
The book's narrator is silly, snarky and sarcastic with a vast knowledge of everything from particle physics and philosophy to parenting and politics. He crams all of this wisdom into hilarious footnotes that form their own witty narrative. After a description of "Bishop Bernard the Bad," the narrator delights with a rant about "people throughout history with the word 'the' somewhere in their names" like "Wenceslas the Worthless ... who once cooked a chef alive for serving a bad ragout."
While Samuel fights back against the demons that have escaped through the portal, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland try to figure out if all this rampant evil is their fault. Coupled with the footnotes, this subplot becomes a clever meditation on the ethical responsibilities of scientific investigation. Plus, these scientists are a hoot.
The novel is populated with peculiar demons like "O'Dear, the Demon of People Who Look in Mirrors and Think They're Overweight" and quirky characters named Hume, Renfield, Rev. Ussher, and Samuel's best friend, Tom Hobbes -- the geek in me is still grinning at these names. Along with the whole "we may be doomed because the gates of hell have opened in the Abernathys' basement" problem, Samuel has other issues too. His teacher dislikes him and his dad wants a divorce. It seems "nobody ... listened to small boys."
Years ago, I listened to Connolly on a panel at the International Mystery Writers convention (he's the best-selling author of the Charlie Parker series). The panel was the most fun I've had at a conference -- ever. Connolly will be at "Once Upon a Crime" on Thursday. Let's hope he'll read aloud.
Carole E. Barrowman teaches at Alverno College in Milwaukee and blogs at carolebarrowman.com