The Concrete Blonde, Michael Connelly

St. Martin’s, 1994, 397 pages, C$7.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-95500-6

Regular readers of these reviews already know that when it comes to crime thrillers, I’ve had it up to here with serial killers. The Silence of the Lambs was the worst thing that could have happened to the genre: suddenly, everyone and their childhood bullies were writing serial killer stories, using just the “serial killer! booga-booga!” line as a crutch for unconvincing characters, lousy plotting, tepid style and a complete lack of understanding of police procedures.

(You could say that my complaints have more to do with lousy fiction than serial killers per se, but that would distract from my argument and minimize my disgust at the umpteenth serial killer novel I read in which the would-be-last victim of the killer is someone near and dear to the detective. See Reich, Kathy: Déjà Dead.)

The Concrete Blonde is a serial killer novel. Fortunately, it’s nothing like anything I’ve read to date, and fortunately so. It proves that a really good author can still do something worthwhile with those same elements that seem so tired in amateur’s hands.

If you read crime fiction on a regular basic, you already know Michael Connelly. Loved by critics, acclaimed by fans, he’s at the top of the genre. I’ve been slowly reading his work, averaging one or two books per year, with the same care as a wine enthusiast will slowly stretch out his collection, secure in the knowledge that there’s more of the good stuff locked in his basement in case of a quick fix. Some authors are like that: Why hurry to completion when you know you’re going to read all of them sooner or later?

Connelly 1994’s novel was his third one, and it starts unconventionally; detective Harry Bosch thought he had solved the “Dollmaker” case –with a single bullet. Now, years later, even as the widow of the Dollmaker sues him for shooting her husband, another victim appears, and it’s got all of the hallmarks of the Dollmaker. Again. Did Bosch get the wrong man? Was the Dollmaker a team? Ta-dum-dum, the investigation begins again.

But nothing is simple, and so The Concrete Blonde offers the unique spectacle of a policeman enduring a civil lawsuit even as he’s investigating the very same case being argued in court. We are, quite fortunately, spared the entire first Dollmaker investigation: the novel begins in mid-story (where, indeed, most serial killer novels end), and the effect of this structural choice are dazzling, alternating between (and then intermingling) courtroom drama and police procedural. Woof!

Fortunately, structure isn’t all that Connelly has on his side: The Concrete Blonde, like the author’s other books, is deliciously written in a no-nonsense style whose elegance nearly disappears behind its accessibility. The pages turn, the chapters fly and pretty soon we’re caught up in a good mystery. Connelly takes delight in confusing the readers with top-notch red herrings; no resentment ensues. Procedure details are top-notch and so are the characters, even including the titular concrete blonde. I tend to use the word “crunchy” when describing substantial novels one can just bite through, and there’s no doubt about it: The Concrete Blonde is one crunchy book.

Yes, this novel is a rare treat, an intelligent and suspenseful thriller, exactly the model of what good crime fictions should be. It remixes familiar elements in a brand new format, and goes it all in an unobtrusive style. Even weeks after reading it, The Concrete Blonde remains strong in memory, which is a lot more that I can say about other crime thrillers, good or bad.

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