(In theatres, April 2011) There’s been a dearth of courtroom drama over the past few years, and The Lincoln Lawyer isn’t just a good return to the form, it’s about as good an adaption of Michael Connelly’s original novel as fans could have hoped for. As with most readers of the book learning about the film’s casting, I wasn’t sold on Matthew McConaughey as protagonist-lawyer Mickey Haller: I had always envisioned Haller as more mature and cynical than McConaughey’s typical romantic-comedy laid-back persona. So it’s a surprise to see him return to serious drama as an older, wiser, far worldlier presence, fully comfortable in the role of a professional defence lawyer operating from his chauffeur-driven car. Brad Furman’s direction fully embraces the California-noir style of the novel, Los Angeles’ broad avenues offering as many dangers as tiny back-streets. The cinematography is bright, sunny, energetic and compelling. Rounding up the main cast are good supporting performances by Ryan Phillippe (detestable as always), Marisa Tomei and William H. Macy. While the twists and turns of the plotting are familiar, they’re well-handled and make up for a refreshing legal drama that proves that execution is often more important than fresh concepts. The Lincoln Lawyer may be less reflective about the role of defence lawyers than the book, but it still delivers enough legal manoeuvres to keep things interesting. For some, it may be the start of a franchise (there are now three further Haller adventures on the shelves); for most, though, it’s a solid, well-paced, well-made crime drama with a cynical smirk: Exactly the kind of film that’s always welcome.
Little, Brown, 2010, 389 pages, ISBN 978-0-316-06948-9
The sheer number of Michael Connelly book reviews on this site will confirm that I’m a fan of the author: Connelly writes crisp, efficient crime thrillers, and even average efforts from him feel like top-notch novels compared to the work of other authors.
For fans, the good news is that The Reversal once again pairs up two of Connelly’s lead characters. If “Mickey Haller works again with Harry Bosch on a case!” means nothing to you, then go read other Connelly books first (I recommend The Poet). But if that tagline means everything, then The Reversal is written just for you.
It starts with, well, an unusual reversal of roles, as defense attorney Haller is offered a temporary prosecution job: An old case involving the kidnapping and murder of a child is being re-opened decades later due to new evidence, and Haller is the best chance to try the case from a fresh perspective. This soon turns into an extended family affair as Haller gets to collaborate with his ex-wife and gets his half-brother Bosch as lead investigator. As usual in Connelly thrillers, complications soon pile up. Haller realizes that his case is tainted and that he’s being set up for a failure. Meanwhile, Bosch keeps a close track on the newly-freed suspect given the troubling nature of his night-time habits. It all leads up to a courthouse drama, but one that won’t go according to accepted procedures…
As with other Connelly thrillers, The Reversal features a mesmerizing mixture of solid plot mechanics, credible procedural details, well-sketched characters and clean prose. As would suggest the hybrid nature of a novel starring a lawyer and a policeman, The Reversal is somewhere between a courtroom drama and a police thriller, drawing upon each subgenre to complicate the action. The interaction between both half-brothers seems a bit more hopeful than most of Bosch’s previous collaborations–which inevitably ended with enough bad sentiments against Bosch to make further collaborations unthinkable. This time, both step-brothers get along reasonably well and even discuss how their daughters could play together. Other characters such as Rachel Walling briefly show up as reminders of the expansive nature of the Connellyverse. Meanwhile, Haller’s musings about being on the other side of the courtroom are fresh enough to bring another angle to the usual police-driven Connelly perspective.
Where The Reversal falters is in its final fifty pages, when the meticulously constructed courtroom drama abruptly goes down in flames as the suspect does something unpredictable. Abruptly, the novel switches gears to a disappointing ending in which gunplay takes precedence over procedure, and enough action happens off-screen to make us feel as if the novel was concluded in a rush. A number of threads are left untied, adding to the unfinished impression. This disappointing finale, added to a novel that doesn’t really attempt anything new, is enough to make even enthusiastic readers conclude that this isn’t one of Connelly’s best efforts.
Fortunately, it’s still good enough to keep most readers happy and satisfied. Connelly’s latest few books, however, have generally been underwhelming as well: There’s a limit to what he can do with Bosch (Nine Dragons showed how far he could push it) and few of Connelly’s experiments with other protagonists, including a return engagement for Jack McEvoy in The Scarecrow, have been particularly successful. While there’s no cause for alarm yet, it’s probably best to put Connelly on some kind of advance-warning watch-list for authors stuck in their own formula. Sure, he’s doing well with routine entries… but how long can he maintain this streak?
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.
Little Brown, 2009, 419 pages, C$30.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-316-16630-0
For series readers, some books are an investment, while others feel like payoffs. While The Scarecrow will be perfectly intelligible and interesting to readers coming in cold to Michael Connelly’s crime thrillers, there’s no doubt that those who are familiar with the Connollyverse are going to get the most out of it. Starting by the fact that it’s a thematic sequel of sort to the author’s most successful book, The Poet.
It’s true that there has already been a direct sequel to The Poet: The Narrows, after all, featured Harry Bosch disposing of the serial killer known as “The Poet”, while Jack McEvoy had small roles in other Connelly novels, most notably in A Darkness More Than Night. But this is McEvoy’s first return as a narrator, and the links between The Scarecrow and McEvoy’s previous adventure run deep.
The Scarecrow certainly opens on some of the most depressing passages ever featured in a Connelly novel so far: As the novel begins, McEvoy has been fired. Newspapers everywhere are downsizing (the novel even includes a timely reference to the Denver Rocky Mountain News, which went web-only in early 2009), and veterans like McEvoy are too costly to keep in an era of corporate efficiency and dirt-cheap bloggers. Given two wholly unrealistic weeks to set his affairs in order and train his replacement, McEvoy is pushed to investigate a murder case where the accused has been coerced in an unconvincing confession. But in doing so, he alerts the real murderer, and this “Scarecrow” is a piece of work: an experienced serial killer with near-magical hacking skills, this antagonist takes no chances in dealing with McEvoy. Events unfold at a surprisingly fast pace from that moment: Only the timely appearance of FBI agent Rachel Walling saves McEvoy’s day, and their rekindled relationship isn’t much of a comfort when Walling’s career is once again on the line.
As a reunion of familiar characters, The Scarecrow does quite a few things very well indeed. Harry Bosch is alluded to along the way, but his absence as the heavyweight protagonist of Connelly’s fiction frees Rachel Walling to become an interesting character once more. McEvoy’s narration is a welcome return to a journalist’s perspective on the usual sordid business that takes place in a Connelly novel: his wealth of experience as a reporter gives a neat twist to the procedural details of the tale (the book’s most telling detail being McEvoy’s recommendation to his successor to move a policeman’s quote closer to the top of the article, so that it will survive editing and create goodwill from the policeman) and echoes The Poet: the motto “Death is my beat” makes a return appearance, even as McEvoy seems at the end of his rope as a journalist.
Otherwise, The Scarecrow hops between California and Nevada, goes from a newsroom to hotels to a data center, features some decent action scenes for McEvoy and doesn’t skimp on the denouement. Connelly’s prose is as crisp as ever, and if the result can often feel a bit familiar (especially toward the end), it’s a solid piece of summer reading with most of the qualities of the author’s fiction and few particular flaws. The novel’s cutting-edge references to the end of the newspaper era may prove to be just a bit too timely to act as an entirely escapist piece of fiction, but fans of Connelly’s output so far will be pleased to see familiar characters on-stage once more, while newer readers will come to understand what all the fuss around Connelly’s fiction is about.
Little Brown, 2008, 422 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-316-16629-4
With a bibliography that now numbers twenty volumes in sixteen years, it’s no accident if Michael Connelly’s got a keen understanding of what his fans are expecting from him. Given Connelly’s track record of bringing together practically all of his protagonists, it’s not much of a surprise to discover that The Brass Verdict features two of Connelly’s best-loved heroes so far: “Lincoln Lawyer” Mickey Haller and series stalwart Harry Bosch. The least surprising development, of course, is that for all of its twists and turns and limpid prose, The Brass Verdict remains solid Connelly.
After two years away from the law after the events of The Lincoln Lawyer, protagonist Haller ends his self-imposed sabbatical in less-than-ideal circumstances: An acquaintance of his has been murdered, and a past agreement between them stipulates that Haller is the legal executor who gets to take care of the cases. For Haller, who planned on slowly getting back into practice after a lengthy rehabilitation period, this comes as a shock in more ways than one, especially when he realizes that one of the thirty-one cases falling into his lap is a high-profile murder case featuring one of Hollywood’s power producers. But there’s a lot more to it. Like, for instance, finding out who murdered the lawyer with the original case load. The LAPD is on the case, and they’ve sent one of their finest agents on the case: Grizzled veteran Harry Bosch, who shares another connection with Haller.
Narrated by Haller himself, The Brass Verdict is a welcome return to the legal procedural mode last successfully seen in The Lincoln Lawyer. While Connelly’s usual perspective (via Bosch) is about police work, Haller’s an opinionated expert on law, and his digressions on the way justice is served in the real world are just as cynical as Bosch’s own handiwork. Lies, unsurprisingly, are at the heart of this novel’s thematic concerns —especially when they place Haller in a difficult position. Meanwhile, Bosch is usually somewhere in the novel’s shadows, doing his own thing.
While The Brass Verdict stands alone by itself, there’s little doubt that Connelly fans will get the most out of it: The interplay between Haller and Bosch is better if readers already know the two characters. As usual for Connelly’s crossovers, Bosch is more scary than admirable when seen from another perspective. The Brass Verdict may be the first of Connelly’s novels to turn him into a supporting character, acting away from the narrator’s perspective and letting Haller realize how callously Bosch is using him for his own purposes. The central connection between the two characters, which has been known to faithful Connelly readers for a while, comes as a bit of an anticlimax late in the novel as the narrator finds out for himself. Meanwhile in the Connellyverse, other characters make guest appearances, from Jack McEvoy’s extended cameo to a fleeting suggestion of Void Moon‘s Cassie Black (who’s overdue for a return feature engagement after being anonymously glimpsed in at least two novels so far.)
There are questions that linger, though: Isn’t it convenient that Haller is still another lawyer’s executor after two years away from the law? Isn’t it convenient that Bosch (just-as-conveniently back in active Homicide cases as of The Overlook) is too heartless to recuse himself from a case involving someone he knows? The questions aren’t as bothersome as the reasons why they spring to mind: Despite Connelly’s sure-footed prose and click plotting skills, The Brass Verdict often feels like a perfunctory effort, another crossover special with more emphasis on the high-concept log-line (“Haller meets Bosch!”) than the actual plot, which seems to end on a rather gratuitous fishtail.
But there’s no need to panic yet for Connelly fans: Even at its contrived worst, The Brass Verdict won’t disappoint anyone, and does nothing to tarnish anyone’s appreciation of the author. If nothing else, it brings to mind memories of The Narrows, which also brought together known character for a result that ended up being less than the sum of its parts. Still, even at his most routine, Connelly still manages to beat most other crime fiction writers at their own game.
Little Brown, 2007, 225 pages, C$27.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-316-01895-1
And so my Michael Connelly Reading Project ends, after slightly more than a year of monthly Connelly novels, reaching back from Connelly’s first novel in 1992 to this latest offering. While I’m sure that there will be more Connelly novels in my future, this particular binge ends with a bang of a different sort —with Connelly’s leanest crime thriller yet.
Merely half as long as the author’s other novels, The Overlook was initially serialized in the New York Times Magazine. In many ways, it’s a typical Connelly novel: It’s a Harry Bosch police procedural, firmly set in Los Angeles, involving a dead body and a tangled mystery. When the victim is discovered to have access to radioactive material, the case spirals out of the LAPD’s control and forces Harry to collaborate once again with FBI agent (and ex-lover) Rachel Walling. Homeland Security has been a part of the Connellyverse since Lost Light, but the stakes here feel more urgent and considerably more direct. The added clash between Harry, who considers this a police investigation, and Rachel, who sees it as a matter of national security, brings the usual jurisdictional conflict we’ve come to expect from the Bosch series.
But the serial origins of the novel give it an urgency that’s been missing from many recent Connelly novels: it’s crisp, takes place within a single day and doesn’t necessarily sacrifice the qualities we’ve come to expect from the author’s work. Its short length is even structurally ironic when it show what happens when Harry’s street-cop instincts are right and the case isn’t as complicated as everyone else thinks it is.
In short, it’s a refreshing return to the basics of police procedurals for Connelly, who looks positively sprightly compared to some of his contemporaries. The story moves, and considering how seldom Connelly’s regular novels waste time, you can imagine the impact of this one.
The flip-side of this short and efficient entry is that it features very little development in the Bosch series. Harry’s got a bit of trouble with his newest partner, and poor Rachel Walling once again finds herself handled as a plot device to allow Harry some contact with a case that otherwise would be yanked out of his hands. That’s pretty much it: it’s a minor entry in Harry’s adventures, giving us a glimpse into what would happen if Connelly went the laconic Robert B. Parker route of giving his readers the strict minimum of what’s expected from him.
It goes without saying that collectors and library patrons will be the ones least dissatisfied by the price/page ratio of this entry: The hardcover edition is grossly overpriced for cost-sensitive readers, and even the paperback look awfully thin when placed alongside its other Connelly siblings.
On the other other hand, The Overlook (true to its serial origins) is the best entry point in the Bosch series in a long time: it doesn’t require any deep knowledge of Harry’s adventures so far, does a good job at teasing new fans with the strengths of Connelly’s writing, and is short enough to hook readers without much of a time investment.
So it’s ironic that this public-friendly entry would mark the end of my formal Michael Connelly Reading Project. The best thing I can say about my experience over the past year-and-a-bit is that it’s been just as good as I’ve hoped for: Connelly is among the best crime writers out there, and even his weaker novels (Chasing the Dime, City of Bones) are still a head above most other thrillers out there. He’s done interesting things to keeping Bosch’s character evolving while guarding his series’ strength against radical changes. If you call yourself a fan of criminal thrillers and haven’t read Connelly yet, well, there are still a few good books in your future.
Little Brown, 2004, 375 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-316-15377-X
When I vowed, more than one year ago, to embark on my grandiose Michael Connelly Reading Project, I really meant it: I would read all of Connelly’s books, including this odd collection of non-fiction pieces written between 1984 and 1992 while he was a crime reporter. Starting in Florida, then moving on to Los Angeles, Crime Beat chronicles the raw material from which Connelly would inform his fiction. It’s an uneven book, unsatisfactory like reality usually is, but Connelly fans will find much to like and to inform in the pieces here collected.
Perhaps the most essential pieces of the book are the first two ones: “Watching the Detectives”, an autobiographical introduction in which Connelly muses upon the real crimes and the telling details that have influenced his life, and “The Call”, a lengthy feature-piece that follows the Fort Lauderdale homicide squad during a particularly busy week. “The Call”, we gather, is one of Connelly’s best pieces from his Florida days: it shows a writer presenting facts crisply, yet with empathy for subjects that have become characters. It’s no accident if “Watching the Detectives” explicitly refers to details of “The Call” as important markers in Connelly’s career.
The book itself is divided in three sections: The Cops, The Killers and The Cases, with an afterword called “The Novelist as Reporter” in which critic Michael Carlson too-briefly establishes further links between Connelly’s journalistic career and his fiction. Pieces reprinted span a range between immediate reporting to more thoughtful pieces covering subject from a certain distance and scope. It’s no accident if the most satisfying pieces are the broader ones: They allow Connelly’s fictional style to take over and can usually present complete stories. They’re also easier to read ten years later, as they try to present a self-contained unit of thought. Particular such highlights include “Crossing the Line”, a feature piece on the LAPD foreign prosecution unit that reaches across national borders to solve cases, and “The Gang that couldn’t shoot straight”, which describes a particularly inept assassination business.
The problem with reprinting newspaper pieces is that there’s always a bigger, broader story hovering beyond the words on the page. Sometimes, even often, that story remains unfinished: too many pieces remind us that reality is seldom wrapped up neatly by the last page of the epilogue: Many pieces end with the frustrating note that the case remains open and unsolved even when, as readers, we can read between the lines and identify a likely suspect. (Or, when the suspect is still at large, “his whereabouts remain unknown”)
To get around this problem, Connelly packages together a few stories about the same cases, following an issue through the years. The “Death Squad” chapter, for instance, ties together eight stories spanning more than two years in order to cover a case in which police officers shot three robbery suspects on thin pretenses.
Despite the reasonable page count, Crime Beat isn’t a particularly long book: The design is airy, the pages are uncluttered, the margins are generous and there can’t be much more than 275 words per page. Fans of Michael Connelly and the True Crime section of the bookstore will get their money’s worth, but people with only a casual interest in criminal stories will definitely prefer Connelly’s fiction. Still, it is an interesting piece in his bibliography, and it does much to show where he comes from.
Little Brown, 2006, 405 pages, C$34.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-316-73495-0
When I started my Michael Connelly Reading Project a year ago (“One book per month, every month, until I’m done”), I did so hoping that Connelly would prove to be just as good as his reputation made him out to be. Despite a few uneven novels, this has been proven true so far, and never more so with Echo Park, which goes rummaging once again in Connelly’s favorite bag of trick and puts everything together in an engrossing, page-turning reading experience.
Not much has changed for Harry Bosch since the last novel: He’s still working with partner Kizmin Rider at the Open-Unsolved unit. Given Bosch’s dubious career-management skills and usual hostility toward authority figures, this already represents a minor miracle. But the comfortable balance is upset by the unexpected capture of a serial killer who confesses to more murders, including an unsolved case in Harry’s past. But what makes it worse this time around is the suggestion that Harry may have ignored a crucial clue –and ignored a suspect who went on to kill more victims. For someone of Harry’s nature, this revelation is almost too much to bear.
But his problems pile up even higher when a field expedition to a burial site goes wrong and the suspected killer escapes, seriously wounding a recurring character along the way. Paired up once again with FBI agent and ex-paramour Rachel Walling, Bosch has to fight his own worst instincts to unravel the usual web of past crimes, political interference and LAPD quirks. At first glance, there isn’t much to this novel: the tropes are familiar, the characters are familiar (boo, hiss, Irving) and there doesn’t seem to be anything to send the series in a new direction.
But the pleasure, as always, is in seeing Connelly put everything together with a deft hand. His style is just as compelling as it’s ever been, and his experience in presenting a complex back-story to the reader remains top-notch. It’s an even more impressive achievement considering that in lesser hands, this would have felt like a re-thread of well-worn quasi-clichés. Connelly even avoids tripping my usual distaste for serial-killer stories by neatly wrapping it it up in a bigger and more ruthless framework: Even the familiar political elements seem bigger and more repellent this time around. The conclusion may be as spectacularly nasty as some of Bosch’s previous investigations (along with the usual “Harry, we can never work together again” speeches), but it still feels like the right climax for this kind of story.
The one sub-plot that never completely works is the same one that never completely works in most of the other Bosch novels: The half-hearted attempts to pair Harry with someone else, this time (once again) with poor bland Rachel Walling, who never gets a chance to shine when she’s paired with Connelly’s best-known character.
Otherwise, Echo Park is another strong entry in the Connelly canon, made even more remarkable in how it re-uses the same elements and still makes it look fresh and fascinating. Not many authors can do that after seventeen novels (twelve of them featuring Harry), and that shows Connelly’s serious dedication to his craft and his readers. Go ahead, start your own Michael Connelly Reading Project: If you like even one of his novels, you’ll have trouble stopping before you’ve read them all.
Little Brown, 2005, 404 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-316-73493-X
Once again, it’s time for Michael Connelly to set aside protagonist Harry Bosch in favor of another character. Such “off-Bosch” novels are often the chance for Connelly to stretch a few writing muscles and try something different. The Lincoln Lawyer stands solidly in this tradition: Not only is it narrated by a very different character, but it’s also Connelly’s first outright legal thriller. It doesn’t spend much time in the courtrooms, but it’s all about the titular Lincoln lawyer, a defense attorney who’s forced to rediscover his moral compass.
Mickey Haller may be a new narrator, but he’s not completely unknown to those who have followed the Bosch series in detail. Although fleetingly mentioned in The Black Ice as Harry Bosch’s half-brother, this connection never comes into play in this novel (and the links to the rest of the Connellyverse are so tenuous as to be invisible), so don’t expect even a cameo by Connelly’s taciturn detective.
Not that any reader will wish for anything once The Lincoln Lawyer kicks into gear. Like most of Connelly’s novels so far, this is a ferocious page-turner, a perfect piece of entertainment designed to mesmerize its audience even as it slickly delivers the expected thrills.
The beginning may be slow, but it’s definitely intriguing: As Haller struggles with the demands of life as a lawyer in urban-sprawled Los Angeles (he conducts most of his business from the back-seat of his chauffeured car, hence the title of the book), readers will get a taste for the reality of his work. As in other Connelly novels, we get a heavy dose of jargon, common attitudes and specialized knowledge: Haller’s usual clients are of modest means, and he effortlessly outlines the daily routine of a lawyer trying to do the best with what he’s got. By the time a well-off man named Louis Rouet asks for legal representation in an ugly assault case, we’re fully aware how badly Haller can use a “franchise client” who will pay steady bills for a long time.
But Haller’s enthusiasm deflates once he begins to suspect his client’s innocence: “There is no client as scary as an innocent man” is the novel’s (fictional) epitaph, and that’s because nothing short of a not-guilty plea can be acceptable for an innocent: The usual options of “fair deals” with the prosecution become unavailable to lawyers representing an innocent man, and that’s the nightmare in which Heller finds himself even as rumbles about another innocent man unjustly convicted start echoing from his past.
Typically for Connelly, there are a number of further twists and turns in the tale, which piles on the complications as it plows forward. The procedural charm of Connelly’s prose now deals with the world of defense attorneys rather than LAPD policemen, but the impact is the same. By the time the surprising ending rolls around, Haller has learned as much as the reader, and Connelly emerges from his first legal thriller with honors.
It would be very unlikely to see Haller ride off in the sunset without expecting his return in a future novel. As Bosch himself approaches retirement and Connelly seemingly can’t resist the lure of linking his series, Haller would be a welcome addition to the policeman’s life, especially if the author ends up spending time examining how both half-brothers ended up on dissimilar sides of the law. As a character debut and a first attempt at another form of crime fiction, The Lincoln Lawyer is a remarkable effort, and it promises much more.
Little Brown, 2005, 403 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-316-73494-2
Rejoice: Harry Bosch is back on the job, and so is Connelly. After a few uneven adventures featuring Bosch as a none-too-comfortable Private Investigator, there’s a sense that everything is back on the right track as Bosch re-integrates the LAPD after the events of the previous volume. He’s not being put back on the homicide table, though: this time, he’s been assigned to the “Open-Unsolved” unit that seeks to close historical files left open. Partnered once again with Kizmin Rider, Bosch is asked to use his experience and his dogged determination to close the book on unsolved mysteries.
This initially seems easier than expected: As Connelly explains, investigative techniques and tools have gotten much better in the past few decades. It’s now possible to analyze evidence kept in storage and match it against suspects. Thousands of such pieces still haven’t been processed in the labs, and as The Closers begins, it appears that one such piece has produced a match: a flesh scraping taken from a gun used in the murder of a teenager fifteen years earlier. The DNA matches that of a known criminal with ties to the girl’s neighborhood, which is even worse considering that the girl was biracial and the criminal has avowed neo-nazi sympathies.
But, of course, nothing is that simple in a Michael Connelly novel. There will be complications.
From the first few pages, Connelly proves that he’s back in top shape. As skilled as ever in entertainingly presenting exposition, Connelly quickly puts together Bosch’s new life: The office he works in, the easy partnership with Kizmin Rider, the renewed antagonism with Irving (“You are a retread. But you know what happens with a retread? It comes apart at the seams.” [P.41]), the atmosphere inside the LAPD and, perhaps more importantly, the numerous details of an investigation abandoned before a satisfactory conclusion. The DNA match may be suggestive, but Bosch wants to make sure that they’re after the right person.
Unfortunately, they find out that there’s a lot more riding on this case than a simple unsolved murder. The case attracts political attention, which puts Bosch right where readers like him best: in the middle of a fight for his professional life, stuck between factions inside his own department. Not that this is the only kind of difficult situation that Bosch encounters during the investigation: a lengthy sequence following him as he goes undercover as a white supremacist proves to be one of the book’s highlights.
The twists and turns are solid, and it’s interesting to see that the number of violent sequences is kept to a minimum: The Closers creates its suspense through sheer procedural suspense, as clues are tracked, details are uncovered and suspects are interrogated. It ends as many Connelly novels do, with Bosch as the chump of someone else’s deals.
But even as it brings Bosch out of the cold, The Closers feels like a return to top form. Faithful readers won’t be surprised to find out that this novel is back to a third-person narration, leaving Bosch’s inner monologue to his off-LAPD career. It’s not a bad thing, since one of the complaints about Bosch two retirement novels was that it brought us perhaps a bit too closely inside the mind of Connelly’s taciturn character. The narration properly places Bosch farther away from the reader, where he can be cloaked with an intriguing sense of mystery: we don’t need to know what he’s thinking.
And yet, it’s a sens of belonging, of righting past wrongs that ends up playing an important role in The Closers. Using Bosch to the best of his abilities as a mystery-solver, Connelly touches upon the nature of criminal-fiction closure and shows that he hasn’t run out of stories to tell about his best-known character.
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.
Little Brown, 2003, 360 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-316-15460-1
Many readers expected things to change with Michael Connelly’s newest Harry Bosch novel. Bosch, after all, resigned from the police force at the end of City of Bones, and having him investigate anything without official support would be a break from Connelly’s well-oiled police procedural mode. But Bosch fans may not be ready for a far more dramatic change: Having Harry narrate his newest investigation.
That’s right: For the first time, we get into Bosch’s head, and it may be a bit too close for comfort. It’s not the first time Connelly has shown us his best-known detective through another viewpoint: In A Darkness More than Night, Harry appeared filtered through the perception of another investigator and the result was a far scarier Bosch than usually portrayed by the sympathetic third-person narration.
But this first-person POV allows no distance between what Harry thinks and what he does, and the result is perhaps a bit too revealing. Bosch, after all, is a taciturn introvert. His thoughts and his actions often differ dramatically. Who would expect one of mystery fiction’s great tough guys to say:
“I am fifty-two years old and I believe it. At night when I try to sleep but can’t, that is when I know it. It is when all those pathways seem to connect and I see the people I have loved and hated and helped and hurt. I see the hands that reach for me. I hear the beat and see and understand what I must do. I know my mission and I know there is no turning away or turning back. And it is in those moments that I know there is no end of things in the heart.” [P.3]
But let’s give Harry a break: After all, he’s retired. At the beginning of Lost Light, he takes on a private investigation out of boredom and a sense of unfinished business. Years before, Harry investigated the murder of a young woman and never solved it: now he wants another crack at the case. But unsolved mysteries have a history of blossoming into complex and unpredictable adventures for Harry, and this case in no exception. Before long, we’ve touched upon the movie industry, money counterfeiting, covert video surveillance and that newest gadget in the mystery toolbox: homeland security.
Harry, of course, is working without official protection. He may bluff his way around like a veteran policeman, but he’s on thin ice and that never gets more obvious than when the FBI decides to rough him around after too many impertinent questions. From the guy who books criminals, Harry finds himself in a holding cell at a place that is barely officially acknowledged. He doesn’t appreciate the experience, and few things could have highlighted the added difficulties of operating without a badge.
As far as Connelly whodunits go, Lost Light is a capable entry in the Bosch series, ending with a spectacular shootout the likes of which we have rarely seen in the series. It does seem to suggest a transition of sorts for Harry, who may or may not go back to the uniformed life after a while on the civilian side. Bosch, as has been obvious since the first Connelly novel, distrusts authority but can’t operate outside a hierarchal structure. Add to that the difficulties in dealing with his ex-wife, and there’s still plenty of juice ahead for dramatic complications in Bosch’s life.
After the disappointing City of Bones, Lost Light feels like a better-controlled novel and welcome evolution in the Bosch saga. I’m not sure that the P.I. model is sustainable, but Connelly is able to play upon a few crucial differences in Bosch’s status as a retired cop and that brings an added layer of interest in this particular investigation. Harry as a narrator is a risky conceit, but the Michael Connelly Reading Project (“one book by month, until we’re done”) is proceeding apace. Who knows what surprises await Harry in the next novel?
Little Brown, 2002, 371 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-316-15391-5
Well, they can’t all be perfect.
Followers of my “Michael Connelly Reading Project” (one book per month, every month, until we’re done) probably remember how I’ve been impressed by every Connelly novel so far: despite occasional dips in quality, every Connelly book is worth reading. Chasing the Dime is far from being a catastrophe, but it proves to be the most ordinary novel that Connelly has written to date.
It’s one of Connelly’s off-Bosch novels: After the drama of City of Bones, Bosch is off to a well-deserved break as Connelly plays around with a different protagonist. Not explicitly connected to the rest of the Connellyverse, Chasing the Dime features Henry Pierce, engineer and founder of a nanotechnology start-up. Pierce may be at the cusp of a business breakthrough as his company seeks investor money, but he has other personal issues to deal with: Freshly separated from his wife, Pierce moves into a new apartment as the novel begins. One of the things to do in the process is to get a new phone number, and that’s where the trouble starts: calls start coming in for a mysterious Lilly, who proves to be an escort.
Listless, perhaps even depressed (and, unfortunately, motivated by a secret from his past), Pierce decides to investigate the calls. If Lilly is gone, can he find her? As unfortunate hints accumulate, our charmingly inexperienced protagonist keeps digging. But he’s messing with dangerous people: Before long, shady characters are sending him threats… and then enforcers who see no problem in using some physical violence to send a clear message. Pierce isn’t about to stop, of course, but the deeper the digs, the worse it gets for him and his company.
As a premise for a thriller, it’s both conventional and promising. The idea of an ordinary man being stuck in underground machinations through happenstance is something that most readers will be able to appreciate. In this case, Pierce seems determined to solve Lily’s disappearance by boredom, curiosity and the need to escape from the pressure at his start-up. Alas, Connelly can’t resist the urge to do something else with the story, and that’s why Chasing the Dime is generally better during its first half than its second. It’s also why it makes more sense when its at its most chaotic.
Explaining this fully would take us into serious spoilers, so let me take refuge in generalities and structural meta-principles. Take the role of coincidences in plotting, for instance. The traditional view is that coincidences (or bad luck, or arbitrary author intervention) is perfectly acceptable as long as it throws the protagonist even deeper in trouble. It’s also generally more acceptable at first, when putting the pieces of the plot in place. After that, favourable coincidences are dramatically unsatisfying: They reveal too much of the author’s influence on the plot, they resolve situations for the protagonists and don’t allow the characters to work out their problems.
But it’s possible to take this anti-coincidence attitude a bit too far into conspiracy territory, where every single thing that happens can be tracked back to a mastermind manipulating his characters in a grandiose plot that leaves little to happenstance and decisions. Chasing the Dime arguably falls into that category: It turns out that the innocent man trying to get himself out of a bad situation isn’t so innocent, and he’s definitely being nudged deeper in trouble by people he knows.
It doesn’t help that the second half of Chasing the Dime becomes far more predictable: A lengthy exposition sequence about nanotechnology is clunky both for the pages of technical information dumped in the narrative, and for the way it sets up the scene for the book’s final confrontation. Savvier readers will wait out the last suspense sequence by wondering when the protagonist will use a piece of technology so lavishly described earlier.
Fortunately, Chasing the Dime escapes complete disappointment through Connelly’s usual strengths: His prose is as compulsively readable as ever, his characters are effectively sketched, his pacing is strong enough to pull readers in, and the wealth of procedural details is compelling at the notable exception of the info-dump mentioned above.
This doesn’t make Chasing the Dime a bad novel (goodness knows that most suspense writers can’t even write a novel of this calibre), but it certainly makes it one of Connelly’s least-impressive ones. He has led his fans to expect something better, so it can be a bit of a shock to realize that, yes, the man can be humanly fallible from time to time.
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.
Warner, 2001, 470 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-66790-0
At first glance, A Darkness More Than Night looks like a piece of stunt writing, the kind of concept that afflicts writers in mid-career as they consolidate their back list and purchase a beach house: A glorious novel facing off one protagonist against another! Harry Bosch vs Terry McCaleb! A detective extravaganza, a criminal spectacle, now available for C$10.99!
Fortunately, there’s a lot more to it than simply a grand face-off between Connelly’s protagonists. A Darkness More Than Night ends up being one of the best examinations of Harry Bosch so far, as seen by a third party who also has our sympathies.
Terry McCaleb is, of course, the star of Blood Work, a previous Connelly novel that has also become a well-known film miscasting Clint Eastwood in the title role. (The written McCaleb may be a fragile heart transplant recipient, but he’s in his mid-forties at best.) As A Darkness More Than Night begins, his retirement is interrupted by an odd request from an old ex-colleague: Could he take a look at a bizarre unsolved case? Just a look, he’s promised, just his initial impressions…
Of course, it’s never so simple. McCaleb may be retired, but the instincts that made of him such a superb criminal profiler haven’t gone away, and tracking down the mysteries of the murder end up being one of his biggest thrills in years. Alas, all the clues soon point to a certain Harry Bosch, currently in the news as the star prosecution witness of a high-profile murder trial…
Soon enough, McCaleb and Bosch trade chapters in this two-ring circus of a crime novel. Has Bosch finally flipped out and killed a particularly troublesome criminal? Will McCaleb defy his wife, the police hierarchy and even the reader’s wishes in getting to the end of the case? As with most Connelly stories, there are less coincidences here than it may appear at first glance, and the pleasure of the novel isn’t in figuring out if Bosch did it at much as seeing Connelly tell the real story.
The big innovation here, of course, is seeing Bosch through the eyes of another character. McCaleb is more intelligent than Bosch, but not as smart. The two detectives have different styles, and using McCaleb’s power of intellectual detection against a street-savvy character like Bosch can provide illumination for both. Bosch, seen from the outside, is a far scarier man than we’re used to. We know enough about his past that the idea of him killing a suspect isn’t so far-fetched… and Connelly does his best to play on this ambiguity. McCaleb’s character also emerges from the novel as a stronger, more interesting character. Untied from the plot mechanics of Blood Work, he ends up being a formidable investigator on his own.
But as it happens, A Darkness More Than Night is more than the union of Blood Works with the rest of the Bosch story line: it ends up tying together all of the Connelly oeuvre so far: Connelly faithfuls will be rewarded by a secondary role for The Poet‘s Jack McEvoy and by a repeated wink to Void Moon‘s Thelma Kibble. The Connollyverse is in full formation, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see all of those characters work together again at some point.
As usual, all of the qualities of Connelly’s fiction are to be found here: limpid prose, sympathetic characters, exceptional details, an excellent sense of Los Angeles’ fun-house perceptions and a twisty accumulation of revelations and counter-revelations.
After the slight side-step of Void Moon, it’s good to see Connelly tackle another full-blown police procedural with such style and panache. The idea of using a character to investigate another proves to be a very clever idea and a triumphant return to form for Connelly. Meanwhile, my Michael Connelly Reading project continues, and there’s still not a bad book in the series so far.