Little, Brown, 2009, 377 pages, C$34.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-316-16631-7
Michael Connelly likes to do something a bit different with every novel, but in Nine Dragons, the master of police procedural takes on a well-worn thriller plot and gives it a whirl. Not simply content to give recurring protagonist Harry Bosch a murder investigation in an Asian-dominated area of Los Angeles, he eventually sends him around the world to track down his kidnapped daughter.
It’s a busy novel, and it starts efficiently. Ten years after the climactic riots of Angels Flight, Bosch is back in the ghetto to investigate a liquor store murder. It looks like a robbery gone wrong, but Harry is trained to look beyond the obvious: Soon, elements of the murder don’t add up, and a few crucial clues lead Harry to think that the murder may be gang-related. Working through the cultural barriers of a murder set in L.A.’s Chinese community, Bosch eventually comes to arrest a suspect. That’s when his real problems begin: by phone, he gets threats to back off and a video clip suggesting that his daughter (now living in Hong Kong with her mother, recurring character Eleanor Wish) has been kidnapped.
Through the wonders of modern air travel, Bosch takes a very long day off work to investigate in Hong Kong. That’s when Nine Dragons surprisingly turns into a thriller, as Bosch teams up with his ex-wife and a local operative to track down his daughter. Harry is out of his element, and Hong Kong is far less friendly to a Los Angeles policeman than Harry is used to. It’s no big spoilers to reveal that things don’t go well for anyone. They even get worse when Bosch gets back home.
One of the dangers in writing serial fiction is that novels may come to blend together. There’s little risk of that happening for Nine Dragon, which will probably be remembered as “the one where Harry goes vigilante in Hong Kong”. The whole kidnapped-daughter plot device has become a bit of a cliché, even when it’s handled in a somewhat muscular fashion (such as the recent film Taken) and so one hopes that Connelly has used his once-in-a-decade opportunity to try that particular story. On the other hand, it is handled relatively well. Throwing Bosch in an alien environment where his badge isn’t worth anything is something different, and the pacing of the novel does seem more urgent in this middle section, not-so-subtly named “The 39-Hour Day”. The back cover photo shows Connelly standing in front of the Hong Kong skyline, and his field research definitely lends some flavour to the result. Even before getting to Hong Kong, Nine Dragon already has a lot to show about conducting criminal investigations in the insular Chinese LA community.
On the other hand, one can’t forgive every single annoyance of the novel. Aside from the somewhat arbitrary nature of the premise (Bosch is supposed to investigate special homicides, but it’s a quirk of fill-in scheduling that gets him to the same liquor store that protected him at the end of Angels Flight), Connelly makes a few choices that are bound to annoy readers. Two recurring characters don’t make it out of the novel alive, and the second death is handled in a detached flashback that describes a bad character making a mistake and paying for it. More troubling is one of the novel’s closing ironies, which does goes against the grain of standard thriller plotting, but end up cheapening many of the story’s consequences, and giving Bosch an extra load of guilt. All of these quirks are intentional, but they don’t necessarily make the novel more pleasant to read of satisfying to think about.
This being said, Nine Dragons does offer much to the faithful Connelly readers. When Bosch requires some legal help late in the book, he turns to his half-brother Mikey “Lincoln Lawyer” Haller. Journalist Jake McEvoy is briefly mentioned, and the consequences of Bosch’s troubled relationship with his newest partner continue to play out. One thing that gets almost no mention, though, is that Bosch is getting old: Perhaps Connelly didn’t think it useful to mention this again in a story where Bosch gets to play a thriller action hero, but it marks a bit of a discontinuity with previous instalments that acknowledged that fact.
As a first full Bosch novel since 2007’s The Overlook, it’s a solid comeback for one of the best-known characters in contemporary crime fiction. The idea to switch genre gears for the novel’s middle third will not please all readers, as is the decision to rely on the old kidnapped-daughter plot driver, but both of those choices give a bit of energy to the instalment at a time where the series’ biggest potential issue is stale repetition. Given how Connelly manages to keep things interesting and not affect his usually readable style, the net result can’t be dismissed.