John Connolly is the very model of the modern major novelist, working hard to charm his readers both on the page and in the flesh. When we meet in London, the 39-year-old Irishman's first words are to inquire whether I'd like a glass of wine, his last to express excitement about visiting Hong Kong this week, when he'll discuss The Unquiet, the latest instalment of his Charlie Parker detective novels. A natural performer, Connolly offers an extensive critique of violence in the US one minute, and a light-hearted assault on the stereotyped use of music in detective fiction the next. 'I get really irritated when all the hero will listen to is the blues. Not even blues musicians listen to the blues all the time. You'd go mad. But all these detectives listen to is opera or jazz.' Music brings out Connolly's inner geeky bloke. Given half the chance, he'd probably talk all night about his favourite bands, albums and listening habits. His previous two Parker books came with their own soundtracks, CDs of songs that helped inspire the baroque atmospherics of his prose. 'I never listen to music when I'm actually writing,' he says. 'I'm finicky. If the alarm goes off across the street, I'm doomed for the day. Sod that, I'm off to the movies. But music often helps me when I'm in trouble with books. But only a bloke would spend his own money doing a mix tape for 70,000 people.' This affable mateyness would be unremarkable if Connolly lived in a Nick Hornby novel. But given his profession, it begs the question: How does such an apparently convivial, amusing and generally nice person dream up such dark, macabre and unsettling stories? In The Unquiet, Charlie Parker is haunted by the memory of his murdered first wife and child, tormented by an estranged second wife and child, and troubled by his own violent nature. Hired by Rebecca Clay to protect her from a stalker called Merrick, Parker becomes embroiled in a horrifying world of child abuse that leads him to a sinister cult called Gilead. What distinguishes The Unquiet isn't just its thrilling plot, but also the psychological depth of the characters, the richness of Connolly's writing and the daring touches of the gothic: the ghostly Hollow Men and a satanic figure of retribution called the Collector. Add themes of guilt, punishment, redemption and revenge, and you have a compelling, readable and disquieting book. Connolly says crime fiction is a necessarily disturbing genre. 'There's a peculiar relationship between readers and writers when it comes to crime fiction. It's an odd thing to want to read because you're getting entertainment from books in which people suffer. And the more people suffer, the more thrilling it becomes.' Although Connolly is careful not to exploit pain for gratuitous thrills (The Unquiet's portrayal of child pornography is shocking, but sensitively handled), he says the best crime writers subvert their audience's perception of the world. 'Some people believe crime is an aberration that needs to be expunged so society can continue. Most of us know that's a complete lie. Society is barely contained chaos, and the world exists on a series of pre-determined agreements that you never see.' Nevertheless, Connolly draws a line between himself and his fictional alter ego - although both know only too well that lines are there to be crossed. 'I compartmentalise a certain part of myself in Parker. I'm not Parker, but I've never had him say anything I didn't believe, or confront a question I wasn't willing to raise for myself. He becomes a prism, a way of looking at the world. I wouldn't want to be that troubled, and I don't think I am. I hope there's a degree of lightness or else I am going to die alone, beating against the darkness.' Connolly was born in Rialto, a poor working-class area of Dublin that suffered its fair share of criminal behaviour - little of it was violent, most drug-related. Terrorism apart, Connolly says, the Irish have never been a violent people - just one reason there's been such a dearth of home-grown Irish crime fiction. 'Irish writing was very introspective for a long time - the only writers who didn't write about being Irish tried to escape, like Beckett or Brian Moore. Now that we're clearly much more materialistic, an element of violence has crept in and we've begun to write normal crime fiction.' Connolly studied literature at Trinity College in Dublin before becoming a journalist. 'I don't think I was very good, as the literary critic of the Irish Times pointed out when my first book deal was announced.' This debut - Every Dead Thing - began the Charlie Parker series that fuses thriller, detective fiction and supernatural horror, inspired by writers such as M.R. James and an older tradition of 'anti-rational' and 'fantastic' Irish fiction. 'Look at the great gothic novelists, and they're Anglo-Irish - and Protestant, curiously. Sheridan Le Fanu, Charles Maturin, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker.' Protestant they might have been, but these writers made perfect sense to the Catholic-born Connolly: His non-Parker works such as Nocturne and The Book of Lost Things are proof of that. Although Connolly has long since lapsed, religion continues to influence his life and writing long after he stopped going to church. 'I'm an a la carte Catholic,' he says, 'the kind Pope Benedict would happily turf out. But you don't shake off that awareness that there's a moral dimension to everything you do. Every sin I have ever committed I have given to a character in the books. I've never killed anybody, but I've done things of which I'm ashamed. Most of us have. We all have a seed of badness and corruption. I also believe in making recompense and in redemption.' Connolly found a corollary for these moral issues in American crime writers such as Raymond Chandler, Ross McDonald and Dashiell Hammett. But the US offers more than a literary template; it gives Connolly subjects, a location and plenty of atmosphere. He estimates that he spends a quarter of each year touring or working in the US. 'I find it an unsettling place of amazing contrasts. Individually, people are incredibly kind, more so than the Irish or British. And yet, when you get them as a large group, they're quite terrifying. Politically, there's no middle ground. Every argument is one of extremes. I love going over there, but I do so knowing I can leave again.' Connolly settled on Maine as Parker's home state after spending some time working in the area. Already famous thanks to local boy Stephen King, it proved just as conducive for Connolly. Mixing warmth and weirdness in equal measure, it was a perfect match. 'I felt a closeness with Maine - there was a streak of individuality. But it has also been ground zero for religious lunacy for most of its history. It's one of the least violent places, but when it does blow, man, it does it in style. These people know how to do a good killing.' Connolly cites his novel The Killing Kind, in which Parker investigates a religious cult in North Maine. Even supportive Maine residents thought he'd gone too far, departing utterly from reality. 'Then two months after the book came out, a guy in New Sweden decides he's sick of his congregation at a Baptist church and puts arsenic into the after-service coffee. One person dies almost instantly; others end up in hospital for weeks.' Connolly laughs with guilty triumph. 'I felt vindicated. It's marvellous. When Maine people go mad, they're out where the buses don't run.' Connolly will return to Maine soon after the trip to Hong Kong to resume work on his next novel, The Reapers. Although Parker appears, it's in a supporting role to members of what are usually his supporting cast - the extremely violent gay mercenaries Angel and Louis. Lighter in tone than recent work, it seems that Connolly is already moving on, learning new tricks and beating against the darkness. Literary dinner with talk by John Connolly, Jul 17, 7.30pm, Post 97, Lan Kwai Fong, Central. Tickets HK$380 (includes dinner) from Dymocks bookshops. Inquiries: 2850 5065 Writer's notes Genre Crime fiction Latest book The Unquiet (Hodder & Stoughton, HK$208) Age 39 Born Rialto, Dublin Lives Dublin Family South African girlfriend and her two children Other works Every Dead Thing (1999), Dark Hollow (2000), The Killing Kind (2001), The White Road (2002), Bad Men (2003), Nocturnes (2004), The Black Angel (2005), The Book of Lost Things (2006) Other jobs Barman, local government official, waiter, dogsbody at Harrods, journalist Next Project The Reapers What the papers say: 'Connolly's books are shot through with bitter poetry, and couched in prose as elegant as most literary fiction ... [His] work has raised the stakes beyond the quotidian concerns of most crime novels, into a grandiose conflict between ... good and evil, with religion and the paranormal stirred into the brew.' - The Independent 'Connolly handles the unspeakable with consummate ease.' - Daily Mirror Author's bookshelf The Chill by Ross Macdonald 'It's the most perfectly constructed crime novel. It has one minor flaw, which I can't tell you, but it's so perfectly plotted. It's one of those books where, at the end, your jaw just drops. It's a perfect sleight of hand. It's a brilliant novel.' Bleak House by Charles Dickens 'My favourite novel in the English language. It's like a spider's web, the sort of huge novel you lose yourself in. You can see the genesis of the crime novel in that it's got a detective and the genesis of the legal thriller. Dickens was the first great genre novelist. It's a book I can go back to.' The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford 'One of about three books in my life that I've re-read. I first read it during the first serious relationship I had. I was involved with someone who was involved with somebody else. There were moments when I felt as though I was living The Good Soldier. I knew there was a truth to this book. It was beautifully handled because it's a black comedy.' The Sportswriter by Richard Ford 'Curiously, when that relationship broke up, this was the book I was reading. It was a cosmic librarian ordering my reading material. It's very depressing. Maybe that's why those books resonate. There's a lovely line at the end which is something like, 'In truth the heart still beats, but not as it once did'. I read that line and nearly cried. I thought, God, you do get through these things, but it never knits again in quite the same way.' Gonzo Papers, Vol1: The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time by Hunter S. Thompson 'It's a book I have affection rather than admiration for. I think a lot of people who followed him misunderstood what he was doing. You can't write this stuff if you're off your head on drink and drugs, and they all thought you could. But it opened my eyes to the possibilities of journalism, and he did it in an extraordinary way.'