The Black Echo, Michael Connelly

Warner, 1992, 482 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61273-1

I’ve been a fan of Michael Connelly ever since discovering Trunk Music a few years ago. Since then, I have read most of his early masterpieces and fan favourites (The Poet, Blood Work, The Concrete Blonde…) but, like some oenophiles storing great vintages “for another day”, simply accumulated his novels without reading them.

Well, this insanity ends this month. For this is the start of the Michael Connelly Reading Project, a comprehensive effort to read one Connelly book per month, every month, until I’m done. In chronological order, skipping over those I’ve already read (with potentially hilarious consequences).

Obviously, I have to start at the beginning: Connelly’s debut, The Black Echo.

It’s not just Connelly’s first novel, but also the introduction of his best-known character, LAPD investigator Harry Bosch. Vietnam veteran, jazz enthusiast, laconic and taciturn, Bosch makes for a protagonist in perpetual tension. He’s incapable of living outside a rigid hierarchy, yet he’s got a problem with authority. He fits the mold of a classic Private Investigator, but chafes away in an unglamourous police job after a brush with celebrity. He comes to the series with a fully built past made of a lousy childhood, a stint in Vietnam, a police career and no permanent romantic entanglements.

It’s pure luck (or is it?) if his latest investigation starts with an anonymous corpse discovered dead in a Hollywood hill drainage tunnel. At first, it looks like a simple case of drug overdose, except for one thing: Bosch knows the victim. They were in Vietnam together as “tunnel rats”, and Bosch can’t let this one go. As he tracks down the threads of the investigation, he’ll discover that the crime wasn’t just the end of a person’s life, but a step in a much bigger plan… one that will see him go back underground.

For established fans of Michael Connelly, the biggest surprise with The Black Echo is how accomplished a first novel it is. It may not be among Connelly’s finest efforts, but it compares favourably to most police procedurals and already showcases the strengths of his fiction: The familiarity with police procedures and mindsets; the clean prose; the use of Los Angeles as a location; the sharply drawn characters; the intricate plotting; the excellent scenes; the mounting tensions between Bosch, the criminals and the hierarchy in which Bosch operates. It’s very slick stuff, and it seems mastered right off the bat. Like all Connelly novels, this one works from the very first page.

There are, inevitably, a number of small missteps. Some of the plot twists are a bit obvious, to the point where I even found myself rightfully thinking “Oh, please, Connelly, don’t go this way.” He does, but part of the strength of the book is how it can survive even that. ( I suppose that my predictive abilities would have been even stronger had I remembered The Concrete Blonde in greater detail.) There is also a bit of a lull at mid-book, between beats of the investigation.

Ultimately, it ends deep under Los Angeles, taking advantage of Bosch’s past as a tunnel rat. The path from the initial examination of Bosch’s friend to the final frenetic pursuit in city sewers is enjoyable and compulsively readable. Connelly knows his stuff, and the hooks he sets in his story make The Black Echo a believable episode in the life of a protagonist who has already seen a lot and will see even more in the rest of the series.

The Black Echo‘s quality wasn’t lost on the book-reading public: Not only did it launch Connelly’s career, it also netted him an Edgar Award for best first novel of the year. For Connelly fans, it’s now an essential read and a bit of a cornerstone. My Michal Connelly Reading Project couldn’t have started on a better note.

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