The Narrows, Michael Connelly

Little Brown, 2004, 427 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61164-6

Count the pages to excitement: It doesn’t take three chapters in Michael Connelly’s The Narrows before everything is set in motion once again: The Poet is alive, Terry McCaleb is dead, Rachel Walling is stuck in a backwater assignment and Harry Bosch can’t stand retirement. Yes, it’s time for another Connelly reunion, as he meshes characters from three (and eventually four) of his sub-series. This one is for the fans, or more accurately everyone who’s ever wondered what would happen if a tough guy like Harry Bosch was let loose against a criminal mastermind like The Poet. Or what would happen if Rachel Walling met Bosch.

This being a Connelly novel, though, it’s never quite as straightforward as a classic joint assignment. The two characters almost exist in universes of heir own, and this sense of mismatched gears is reinforced by the alternating narrations used from one chapter to the next: Bosch, still on his own after turning in his LAPD badge, narrates the events from his perspective as he did in Lost Light, whereas Walling’s (and the Poet’s) chapters are told in Connelly’s straightforward third-person prose. As in the previous book, the first-person narration brings us a bit too close to Bosch. At times, we can almost feel Connelly work twice as hard to hide facts from readers stuck in Bosch’s head. Needless to say, the alternating narration dramatically illustrates the difference between the two agents… even when they happen to work toward the same goal.

One thing is for sure: Harry gets a lot of mileage from his Mercedes-Benz SUV as he tries to stop the Poet from killing again: The clues he inherits from Terry McCaleb lead him to destinations not too far away from Las Vegas, which proves handy given the revelations at the end of Lost Light. Bosch even holds a temporary apartment near McCarran International Airport, where he crosses paths with a character from another of Connelly’s novels. (Not that the fan-service stops there: Connelly indulges in even more meta-referential fun when he mentions that McCaleb’s funeral had been attended by Clint Eastwood.)

Bosch eventually meets Rachel Walling at a surreal dig site in the Nevada desert, where six bodies are buried near a boat. The find isn’t accidental: The Poet is up to his usual games, leaving just enough clues to make the chase exciting. A small town where brothels outnumber convenience stores is next on their tour of Poet clues. Then, inexorably, it’s back to Los Angeles, where Connelly pulls out all the stops in staging a rain-drenched climax in the torrential waters of a flooded Los Angeles River. A twist in the epilogue can be read as a callback to a similar kick at the end of Bosch/McCaleb’s previous joint investigation in A Darkness More Than Light.

Along the way, there are the expected number of complications for Bosch. Bosch tumultuous personal life has always been less convincing than his investigations, and The Narrows is no exception to the rule. Given his past romantic history, it’s not a surprise if he manages to screw up again with his ex-wife, and get close to Walling a few pages later.

But once the big-budget theatrics of the climax are done, what’s left? For all of its fan-pleasing goodness, The Narrows does feel like a let-down. It doesn’t have the standalone heft of The Poet. It requires a pretty thorough knowledge of the Connellyverse. Bosch himself easily overshadows Walling, leaving little for her to do except react to both Bosch and the Poet. The antagonist himself feels lightweight, a serviceable villain fit to be bashed around by Bosch. Even if the separate pieces are crafted as carefully as ever, the patches and joints required to fix everything together threaten the impact of the work as a whole. What worked so well in A Darkness More Than Night was the contrast between two detectives, a partnership that could only end with both of them realizing they wouldn’t be able to work together again. The Narrows retreads the same territory, but also belies it by a bit of posthumous hand-off. Yet it doesn’t offer a strong enough rationale for Bosch and Walling to do business together, let alone tackle the fleeing Poet.

In interviews, Connelly has said that The Narrows was written partly to conclude dangling threads, partly to conclusively settle the fate of The Poet and partly -we presume- to mark the end of Terry McCaleb’s arc as a character. But like many ageing authors, Connelly’s desire to link his entire universe together may prove to be more self-indulgent than worthwhile.

But even hobbled by its predecessors, The Narrows is still a better read than most crime thrillers on the market today. Connelly’s writing remains sharp and his eye for procedural details is as fascinating as ever. Since Bosch allows himself to be talked back into more LAPD work during the course of the novel, there’s no reason to believe that the next book won’t be a return to form.

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