Warner, 2002, 421 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61161-1
Reading series fiction offers a number of pleasures and complications that just can’t be replicated in single novels and, indeed, may owe more to TV series structure than to traditional prose characteristics. There can be macro-plot and micro-plot considerations, for instance, as narrative elements can be developed over several volumes even while each book offers a complete story. Balancing character growth against the need to offer a continuing dramatic environment can be a challenge, especially when the two start working against each other. Is it any wonder if series structure breakthroughs are often featured in sub-standard standalone stories?
Michael Connelly, for instance, is best known for a taciturn LAPD detective named Harry Bosch. Bosch is smart, determined, secretive, rough and has a problem with authority. But one of the continuing dramatic driver of the series so far has been the paradox between Bosch’s distrust of authority versus his inability to exist in an environment without a clear hierarchy. Bosch’s been badly treated by the LAPD, but has put up with it so far. City of Bones tests this tension to the limit.
It starts horribly, as most Bosch investigations usually do. A body is discovered in the hills of Los Angeles and Bosch is put in charge of the investigation. The body of the victim, a teenage boy, has been left undiscovered for two decades. The murderer seems long gone. But as in most Connelly novels, the path to the truth can be strange, twisted and damaging.
Alas, City of Bones is a frustrating novel in that it blends the good and the not-so-good in a story with major consequences for Bosch. It often feels like a novel rushing to a predetermined conclusion, and the nudges required to push Bosch toward particular story points are often done in less-than-graceful fashion.
For instance, there’s a rushed quality to the romantic subplot that is tacked to Bosch’s life in this novel. The detective, of course, has never been terribly lucky in his romances (we even see him deal badly with an ex-girlfriend early in the book), but this one is easily the worst. Unfortunately, the fate of this book’s girlfriend seems written on her head as soon as she walks into the novel: it’s almost a cameo appearance with an all-too-obvious ending. Such lack of skill is unusual for Connelly, and it’s troubling in how it unsettles his normally rock-solid plotting.
Fortunately, Connelly does as well as usual elsewhere in the novel: his chapter-by-chapter plotting is solid, his prose style is still a model of clarity and it’s hard to stop reading even throughout the weaker moments.
But there’s a new elements at play here: a foreboding feeling that something truly unsettling is about to happen. By the end of the novel, our worse suspicions are confirmed, as Bosch finally takes a decision that had long been coming. Where this will leave the series is a question to be answered in the next volume.
As for City of Bones itself, we’re left with a lopsided novel, one where the smaller plot elements are rushed in order to advance the evolution of the larger series. It would have been less obtrusive had the character of Julia Brasher had been introduced in an earlier volume (or even given a less-obvious family name); more room to let the character breathe would have allowed it to be more than a cheap plot device among others.
But in the end, we’re left with a new series framework, another closed case for Harry Bosch and a superior reading experience for procedural mystery fans. Connelly fans will tune in for the next exciting episode, whatever it may be.