Little Brown, 2000, 391 pages, C$34.00 hc, ISBN 0-316-15406-7
Every other book, Michael Connelly takes a break from his best-known protagonist Harry Bosch and does something else. Often, those “off books” end up being some of his best work: The Poet, featuring a journalist stuck in a serial murderer investigation, was widely hailed as one of Connelly’s best work. Blood Work, about an FBI profiler recovering from a heart transplant, was adapted to the big screen by Clint Eastwood and ended up becoming one of Connelly’s best-known books. At a time where repetition is the biggest artistic enemy of the best-selling author, Connelly is playing it smart and stretching creative muscles on his own schedule.
Now, with Void Moon, Connelly steps away from procedural investigations and tackles both a very different character, and a slightly different style. For the first time, he features a female protagonist and tackles a story that feels like a thriller. Better yet: This time, the characters are not on the right side of the law.
First up is Cassie Black, an ex-con who’s trying to rebuild a good life in Los Angeles after a few years inside. But living above ground isn’t easy, especially when something she holds dear is about to leave forever. Pushed by desperation, Cassie goes back to her former handler and volunteers for one last job. Just one more score, for the money. It turns out that there is such a job available to her: a simple casino client robbery in Las Vegas. Routine stuff for Cassie, who knows more about robbery than entire police departments. But this being a Connelly novel, things don’t go as planned, and the first part of Void Moon ends with her raising a gun at her victim…
Only to cut to another character: Jack Karch, a Las Vegas native who has made such a routine out of burying people in the desert that they call him the “Jack of Spades”. Jack is a casino executioner: he’ll handle whatever needs to be handled. So when a murdered clients is discovered in his hotel, he’s put on the case. Pretty soon, he realizes that his client was no simple client, and that powerful people really want to recover the briefcase that we was carrying around.
As it happens, Cassie and Jack know each other: Years before, it’s in no small part thanks to Jack that Cassie’s life was destroyed. As Jack tracks down Cassie again, the question arises: Is this time for Cassie’s revenge, or for Jack to finish what he started? Desperate, cut off from the legal world and hunted down step by step, Cassie will have to be resourceful in order to set things right… that is, if she opts for doing the right thing.
The morally tainted protagonist and utterly ruthless antagonist are part of what make Void Moon different from the author’s other books, but it’s more interesting to look at what still makes it a Connelly novel. Nobody will be surprised to learn that his prose is just as compelling here than in his earlier books: Void Moon starts rapidly and keeps roaring along, carrying readers well past their bed-times. Connelly’s gift for procedural descriptions is just as good here than ever before: Not only does he detail how Cassie is able to get and deploy high-tech gadgets to perform her robbery (“All surveillance technology described in the book actually exists and is available to the public” adds Connelly in his acknowledgements), but he follows Jack as he tracks down the clues leading to Cassie. This PI-turned-bad sequence works just as well as Cassie’s segments, and leads to good confrontations between the two lead characters. Cassie may not be the purest of characters, but she’s more than sympathetic enough to make for a terrific protagonist: There is seldom a doubt as to where our sympathies must belong.
And so it all amounts to a well-handled thriller. Though Void Moon doesn’t carry the extra kick of Connelly’s best novels, it’s a good reading experience and it does little to tarnish the Connelly brand name. Fans will be pleased to find a subtle link to the novel Trunk Music, suggesting that Bosch himself is not too far way.
A minor but pleasant interlude in my Michael Connelly Reading Project (“One book per month, every month, until I’m caught up”), Void Moon is another proof that Connelly is one of the top crime writers in America right now. Even on holidays, he’s still as good as other writers at the top of their game. I don’t expect Cassie to disappear from the Connellyverse.