About Me

My photo
I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Render Unto Caesar . . .

By Albert Ashforth
(Oceanview Publishing; 358 pages; Oct. 2, 2012)
(via Kindle: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.)
ISBN: 1608090590

As one of the characters rather leadenly­­­ puts it in Albert Ashforth’s spy thriller, The Rendition, there’s good news and there is bad news.

The good news: Ashforth, an ex-G.I. and former military contractor who has trained NATO troops and served in the Balkans, Germany and Afghanistan, has created an engaging and well-drawn protagonist, Alex Klear, who wrings some unique changes on a familiar character who in other hands might be a cliché: the post-le Carré reluctant warrior who is forced out of retirement to take one last assignment.  To complete it, he must not only struggle against the evil machinations of the book’s villains, but also fight his own callow and opportunistic bosses.

The novel also exhibits characteristics of what I call “red noir:” a plot that contains an explicit critique of capitalism as the root of evil, countered by a hero – in this case a spy rather than a private investigator – who must, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, go down these mean streets seeking justice without becoming mean himself. I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to say that one of the primary villains is an immensely wealthy man, or that part of the plot mechanism involves the corrupting influence of his money on public servants.

Albert Ashforth
Ashforth is aided immensely by his detailed knowledge of the espionage trade and the locales in which the action unfolds, and his novel’s discussion of the business of spying has the ring of authenticity.

Add to this mix black-hearted villains, exotic locales and despicable U.S. intelligence bureaucrats and you have a classic suspense novel with an interesting twist: the story starts with a mission that is a colossal failure, and for most of the tale, the reader is kept wondering whether the hero will recover from this inauspicious beginning.

That’s the good news, and it is very good indeed.  Unfortunately, the bad news, while not a deal breaker, is sufficient to mar this otherwise excellent novel of intrigue:  The Rendition, like so many other books on today’s fiction market, is simply the victim of sloppy editing.  

At times the resulting damage is relatively minor. A misspelled word or two here and there, some questionable grammar or garbled syntax are to be expected in genre fiction, so long as the mistakes don’t distract the reader from the story that is being told. 

But occasionally, the errors are enough to make a careful reader cringe – or tear his or her hair: several times Ashforth repeats himself, occasionally even using the same phrases; this gives the reader the impression he was too lazy to look for a different way to express the same thought, and at one point, makes the reader wonder why he bothered to restate something he already made clear elsewhere. 

On other occasions, he laboriously explains the meaning of acronyms that, by now, have become obvious to even an inattentive follower of current affairs.  After more than a decade of warfare, for example, I don’t think it is really necessary to explain that the initials “MRE” stand for “Meal, Ready to Eat.” This over-explanation is particularly hard to understand given that The Rendition contains a fairly complete glossary of military and intelligence terms at the end, and anything Ashforth thinks the reader might be unfamiliar with could easily have been inserted there.

While Klear is completely developed in the novel, a couple of the other characters are drawn with less attention and skill.  The book has three major female characters who could have been much more compelling if Ashforth had paid them the same attention he did to Alex Klear. One of them, a terrorist simply cries out for further development in the book, but is abruptly dropped at a crucial point in the story.  Klear’s boss, Sylvia Frost, is presented in a way that makes her seem school-marmish at one point and coquettish at another; the discontinuity is jarring and the novel would have been more satisfying if the conflicts had been smoothed out. The third woman, a Munich detective of police, is the least satisfying of all, since she is simply sketched and never thoroughly developed as a distinct individual.

But it’s probably too much to expect perfection in a vacation bonbon like The Rendition. Suffice to say that Ashforth gets the job done very nicely, and his spy yarn can be consumed in a single setting, albeit one that is on the longish side, considering that the paperbound edition is 358 pages long. It is a perfect book for summer reading or a long plane ride – say from the U.S. to Germany. It definitely rates four nooses!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

This Model is Not a Lemon!

Lemons Never Lie
By Donald E. Westlake (Writing as Richard Stark)

  • 155 pages
  • University of Chicago Press; April 1, 2012.
  • (Kindle version by Amazon Digital Services, Inc.)
  • ASIN: B007QW58W0

Those familiar with Donald E. Westlake's "Richard Stark" pseudonym will probably not be surprised that a heist goes sour in Lemons Never Lie, a Westlake novel originally published in 1971 and reissued for Kindle last year. 

What may surprise them is that Stark's mononymous professional criminal, Parker, isn't in this book. At one point, Parker's name is dropped by the actual protagonist, Alan Grofield, but that's as close as he gets to making an appearance.

Grofield, you see, is a sometime actor who is trying to support his small theater company in rural Indiana by pulling off the occasional heist. He is one of Parker's associates and is the primary character in four of Westlake's novels under the Richard Stark pseudonym.

Donald E. Westlake (AKA Richard Stark): He gave us thespian/thief Alan Grofield as well as the mononymous professional criminal, Parker. (Courtesy Donaldwestlake.com)

Large-scale armed robberies that go awry are a mainstay of the Richard Stark oeuvre: it seems that almost every heist Parker even pulled ends up with the thief seeking revenge because he has been swindled out of his end of the score. 

But Grofield goes Parker one better in this novel: Parker usually gets robbed just once; Grofield is hit twice by the same bad guy, a nasty piece of work named Andrew Myers.

Myers robs the actor once by accident while trying to rip off another person altogether; he strong arms Grofield the second time after the thespian is part of the crew that steals a large amount of cash from the safe of a shopping center.

(For anyone who has never heard the phrase, Richard Stark crime novels are an apt illustration of the old axiom that there is little honor among thieves; at least, not enough to be worth talking about.)

Grofield first encounters his nemesis in Las Vegas where Myers pitches him and several other professional crooks to join him in staging a payroll robbery at an upstate New York beer brewery. 

That's when Grofield figures out that when it comes to brain-power, Myers is a couple potatoes short of a lug.

During Myers' dog-and-pony show about the robbery -- complete with glossy photographs and diagrams showing how it can be managed -- Grofield learns the plan turns on blowing up a couple of occupied buildings and machine-gunning an entire office full of guards. 

All this to snatch a $120,000 payroll for which each robber will receive less than 20 grand.

To even consider killing that many people for such a pittance marks Myers as a certifiable lunatic, Grofield concludes. But on top of everything else, he plans to give local gangsters ten percent of the score just to let the robbery take place -- a ridiculous notion to most of the pros Myers is trying to recruit. 

He and a chum bug out of Myers' robbery scheme, but he continues to cross paths with the guy afterward -- and each encounter costs him the money he needs to keep his theatrical venture going.

Along the way there is a narrative involving the evergreen theme of revenge, coupled with a combination of high and low jinks that keeps the story lively.

In the Grofield novels, Westlake has a breezy style and believable characters, though the situations they find themselves in are sometimes a little hard to swallow. For example, accepting that Grofield commits high profile crimes to keep his little theater operation going requires a major suspension of disbelief.

On the other hand, what do crooks do when they're not busy hatching their felonious little plans? Few individual crimes result in a score large enough to finance a professional criminal's retirement, so most of them have to work at regular jobs when they aren't busy stealing. 

When it comes right down to it, running a threadbare theatrical company is as sensible as a thief's day job as selling drugs and illegal firearms out of a hot dog stand -- like two non-fictional crooks in San Jose did a couple of years ago; or, more to the point, operating a global booking service for Chinese entertainers like former Wo Hop To Triad boss Peter Chong.

In any event, the Grofield novels are lighter-hearted than the Parker books, in part because Grofield is not quite as single-minded in his villainy -- Parker is a professional criminal and nothing else; Grofield's theatrical activities give him a somewhat wider range of interests and pursuits, and lead him to interaction with a more diverse spectrum of society.

But Grofield, like Parker, is not a person you want to double cross; Lemons Never Lie makes this abundantly clear.

Parker is the real deal, but for a similar story with a little change of pace, the Grofield books offer a solid evening's worth of entertainment. I give three nooses to Lemons Never Lie.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Painted Into a Dark Corner

By Elizabeth Haynes
(Harper; June 2012; 432 pages)

I love a mystery, but sometimes one can be too mysterious even for me. That was the case with Into the Darkest Corner, a psychological thriller by Elizabeth Haynes:  I suddenly realized after reading nearly a third of the darned thing that I had no idea what it was about.

Okay. I did have some idea. Catherine Bailey, the heroine, is a single woman suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, apparently brought on by terrifically bad experiences she had several years before.  Catherine is so obsessive and compulsive, in fact, for the novel spends scores of pages simply going over how she locks and then checks, then relocks and rechecks her apartment door.  Repeatedly. Ad nauseam.

Catherine seems to have two men in her life – a lover who is the focus of whatever chain of circumstances turned her into a nervous wreck and a doctor who lives in the apartment upstairs who takes a liking to her as a neighbor and tries to help drag her back from her mental illness.

And that is pretty much the sum of what has happened so far, 120 pages into the novel. The only real action has been a drunken co-worker’s attempt to force Catherine to kiss him – an effort that was broken up before the unwanted sexual contact occurred.  For most of the book, there is an aura of violent menace just below the surface of daily events, but that is it. 

For a thriller to thrill me, I require a bit more than that.

Elizabeth Haynes isa police intelligence analyst when she isn't banging out thrillers. 
On the surface, this should be a winner. Haynes is a police intelligence analyst and she has clearly done her research on obsessive compulsive disorder because she hammers Catherine’s disarrayed state of mind at every opportunity.

And the woman can unquestionably write: her language is elegant, her periods fully rounded, her vocabulary excellent.  The dialog seems believable and the relationships between protagonist Cathy and the other characters so far have been credible.

But the book just seems to sit there, inert, without enough action – of any sort, physical or psychological --  to maintain my interest.

I really wanted to like this book, Haynes’ first novel, otherwise I wouldn’t have read as much of it as I did before giving up.  I am sure that something must happen by its last page because it  was selected Amazon’s best book of 2012 and I am told a film based on it is in development.

Unfortunately, I felt that by the time I was more than a quarter finished with it, the author should have shown me at least one bit of drama reward me for having suffered through all those door and window lock checks Catherine keeps doing. And I felt that if I continued reading this novel without that reward, I would be demonstrating a sort of obsessive compulsive behavior myself.

I reluctantly give it one noose.  If I find myself with enough time and energy to take another crack at it and it turns out that I gave up too soon, I may revisit this review. But for the time being, I can’t really recommend Into The Darkest Corner.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

This "Private" Should Only Be a Buck!

By James Patterson and Mark Sullivan
(Little, Brown and Company; 448 pages; Jan. 21, 2013)
EBook by: Hachette Book Group

Thomas Harris has a lot to answer for: ever since he published The Silence of the Lambs, his 1998 novel featuring Dr. Hannibal Lechter, yarns about psychosexual sadists who commit serial slayings have become the default setting for murder fiction.

It is no longer enough to simply have a killer who commits an ingenious homicide: nowadays the villain has to kill at least a half dozen people to get the average reader’s attention.

Give the authors some credit: they recognize that in real life you will find more corpses after a makeshift bomb explodes on a Kabul street corner than in an entire bookshelf full of fictional serial killer yarns, so simply increasing the body count is no longer enough to hold a reader’s interest.
And catching the bad guy – or girl – is not enough, regardless of how clever the detectives are or how difficult their task may be; the detectives must stop the perpetrator before he kills again – and again, ad nauseam. As a result, it seems that murder techniques grow more complex and technical, the locales more exotic and the motives more bizarre in each new thriller that is produced.

James Patterson

Thus, in his latest novel, Private Berlin, James Patterson, author of Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls, comes up with a deranged German killer named Matthias Falk who is systematically eliminating people – including one of the investigators for Jack Morgan’s global detective agency, Private.

(In this review I refer to the novel as Patterson’s work. Admittedly, Mark Sullivan shares a byline with Patterson on this and one other novel in the Private series, but let’s face it: Patterson is the real draw; according to his entry in Wikipedia, he has written 97 books in the last twenty years. By comparison, Sullivan is relatively unknown: his webpage pegs his output at eleven books – and two of those were written with Patterson.)

Co-author Mark Sullivan

Somehow, I seem to have missed James Patterson’s work in the past. God knows how – the man is a fiction factory who cranks out books for adults, graphic novels and children’s fiction at a dizzying pace. He has managed to sell more than 260 million copies of his books in the last two decades, so when this one showed up on the New York Times bestseller list, I decided to give it a try.

I have probably spent ten dollars more foolishly, but I can’t recall when.

Here’s the recap:

The body count begins when the corpses of two people – one of them the missing gumshoe from Morgan’s agency -- are found in a long-abandoned East Berlin slaughterhouse. The corpses have apparently been tortured and literally fed to rats that live beneath the facility. Moreover, they are only the most recent bodies to have been stashed in this secret hidey-hole; the tunnels beneath the abattoir are filled with the decomposed remains of dozens of other victims, some obviously dead for years.
Morgan’s firm marshals an investigative team, at first to search for the missing op, and then, after his body is found, to find out who killed him and why. One member of the team is detective Mattie Engel, who had been engaged to marry the murdered man until she broke the relationship off six weeks earlier. Most of the story is told from her point of view, although in a third person format that allows Patterson considerable narrative freedom.

To solve the murder, Morgan’s sleuths must track down a psychopath who has methodically erased himself from all German records and is also a master of disguise capable of taking on a new identity at the drop of a hat – or, in some cases, wig.

More importantly, they must find out what the connection is between the people that Falk has killed.  Only by ferreting out the murderer’s past can they account for his present – and ascertain who it is he will try to kill next.

The chase proceeds with the detectives locked in a struggle with the German police commander in charge of the criminal investigation. For reasons that are not initially clear, this police Commissar seems determined to steer the probe away from the bodies found in the slaughterhouse.

The body count continues to climb and each time Morgan’s investigators get close to the killer, he slips through their grasp. Then, after a breakthrough that shows them the connection between the people already slain, Morgan’s detectives are finally able to figure out the motive. Will they catch Falk in time to save his remaining targets?  Will the German police arrest the serial killer or continue to ignore the leads the private investigators have uncovered? To find out, you will simply have to read the book. I have disclosed more than enough already without revealing the ending.

On the other hand, you may want to skip this one entirely, even though it is selling like hotcakes and managed to find a spot in the New York Times top fiction list since it was released earlier this year. The reason? Despite the best efforts of Patterson and Sullivan, Private Berlin simply isn’t very interesting.

Considering what the authors have to work with, this is surprising: the action takes place in contemporary Germany; one subplot involves connections to the brutal East German secret police while another involves dens of prostitution where sado-masochistic sex is a specialty; and the murders range from private confrontations to a public assassination at an auto show in front of thousands of people. But even with all these things going for it, Private Berlin is a lot of empty prattle that seems to have become a bestseller because that’s what Patterson writes (his books have made the New York Times list 76 times since he retired from the advertising game and went full-time as an author).

Jack Morgan, who has played a key role in some of Patterson’s other novels about his crack international investigative agency, only takes up space in this story, letting other characters do all the heavy lifting in a way that makes you wonder why he bothered to fly in from the U.S. on the firm’s private jet. Another character is a middle-aged forensic genius who is given to wearing his graying long hair in a pony tail and sporting T-shirts advertising rock ‘n’ roll bands (an amalgam of NCIS’s Ducky and Abby?). Still another is a tough counter-terrorism expert who is physically imposing, but dumb enough to show light in a darkened forest so the villain can shoot him, effectively taking him out of the action at a critical juncture. Engel’s immediate boss seems to have been included in the book primarily to upbraid her ace investigator for not following company procedures.

Most of the people in the book remind me of those corny cardboard cutouts of celebrities they display at county fairs so you can get a picture standing next to Obama, Marilyn Monroe or somebody else famous: they look like real people but none of them have any substance.

And here’s an epic fail: the serial killer, himself, is basically a non-entity. Unlike Hannibal Lechter, whose character was so skillfully drafted by Thomas Harris that he cast a dark shadow over RedDragon and dominated The Silence of the Lambs, even though he was not the actual villain in either book, Patterson’s murderer, Mr. Falk, is simply a collection of random characteristics in Private Berlin.

When we have finished with all 448 pages of this pot-boiler, the impression we have of the man is that he likes rough trade sex, knows hundreds of ways to kill people, thinks he is smarter than everybody else in the world and has a couple of annoying speech tics – including ending sentences on a rising inflection with the word “Hmmm?” and making a clicking sound in the back of his throat when he is happy. These, incidentally, appear to have been added to the character merely so he would have some recognizable features to justify the action.

In a genre in which a believable serial killer has become an absolute requirement, Patterson goes through the motions in Private Berlin.  This failure to create a memorable villain is doubly infuriating considering that Patterson interlaces his third person narrative with a number of chapters in which his murderer directly addresses the reader in the first person. These soliloquies would be a perfect place to engender some reader interest in the villain.

For whatever reason, Patterson fails to make effective use of them.  In the final confrontation, Mattie Engel is forced to quiz Falk about why he has done all these terrible things, just like a detective in a English “cozy” published in the 1930s. Despite its reliance on high-tech detection and its 21st Century setting, Private Berlin climaxes in a classic drawing room interview with the investigator – only without the Earl Grey and buttered scones.

All these flaws are deal-breakers in my opinion, but the real reason I can’t recommend Private Berlin is its idiot plot.

As the novel makes clear, the only reason Falk is bumping his victims off is because they all have some connection to a life that he has already effectively erased. He calls himself “The Invisible Man,” and likens himself to the character played by Claude Rains in the old Universal horror film based on H.G. Wells’ novel: he has changed his identity, changed his appearance and built a new profession so removed from his past that nobody would normally give him a second look.

All he has to do is leave Germany and take a new home in another country. But while he is humping a prostitute in a brothel owned by an Eastern European gangster, one of his past victims recognizes his voice. His voice, mind you – she doesn’t even see his face because he is wearing a mask. Falk finds out and instead of taking the substantial fortune he has amassed from victims he murdered in his past life and fleeing the country, he sets up a laborious plot to methodically eliminate a handful of people who do not know he even still exists. After which he apparently intends to start a new life somewhere else, anyway.

Instead, he lingers and kills, drawing unnecessary attention to himself in the process. 

Let me clarify why this is idiot plot in all its rank stupidity: all the Private investigator has to go on is a secondhand report from someone who recognized the voice of a masked man in a brothel. He still does not know the man’s new name, what he looks like, where he resides, or how he earns a living. Despite this, this ace detective arranges to meet Falk at the slaughterhouse – without contacting anybody at his agency to tell them where he will be or what he is doing.

But wait, there’s more: not only does the detective have bupkus, but it turns out that the woman who recognized Falk’s voice has already been murdered when he gets to the slaughterhouse. This means everything the dead woman told him is hearsay and of no evidentiary value. So without a first-hand witness, there is no reason for Falk to lure him there and kill him in the first place.

I expect the criminals in an Elmore Leonard or George V. Higgins novel to do stupid stuff like this because they are portrayed by their authors as “half-smart” – people just intelligent enough to get themselves into trouble. By contrast, Falk is supposed to be a master criminal, an evil genius, but to me it is obvious no one but a moron would do what he does.

In the final analysis, it may be the more exotic aspects of Private Berlin that doom the book from page one. Patterson and his co-author spend so much time and energy talking about high tech detection methods, post-wall German real estate, computer technology, ex-Stasi thugs, Russian gangsters and other subjects that are only marginally related to the actual plot that they lose track of the need to tell a straightforward and compelling story.

Ironically, in No Place to Die, a serial killer tale I recently reviewed in these blogs, author James Thane tells a similar story – his murderer draws his motive from events that occurred far in the past and has worked out his crimes carefully. He even has a redoubt like Falk’s slaughterhouse where he takes one of the people he intends to kill.

But Thane minimizes the cardboard cutout figures in his cast of characters and works to make his serial killer as believable as the woman he kidnaps and holds hostage or the detective who is trying to capture him.  This not only makes the tension between the main characters more credible, but allows him to toggle the narrative between them, which is a good way to distract the reader from logical inconsistencies in their behavior.

The conspiracy theory that underlies the plot in Private Berlin -- and the numerous subplots, all red herrings inserted in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the story’s mystery alive – simply clutter the novel and make the story less straightforward and compelling. The result is a novel that seems to waste its exotic locale and full-throttle opening.

If this is the best that Patterson can do, I’ll be avoiding his stuff in the future.

I give Private Berlin only one noose.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Bosch Solves a 20-Year-Old Murder Mystery Hidden Inside “The Black Box”

By Michael Connelly
English, 416 pages
(Little Brown and Company; November 26, 2012)

I had never heard of thriller writer Michael Connelly until my friend Pat Sullivan mentioned his name in response to one of my rants about Lee Child’s Reacher series; I think it says a lot that after I finished The Black Box, Connelly’s latest novel featuring LAPD detective Harry Bosch, I was sorry I hadn’t started reading his stuff when he first started putting it out 20 years ago.

The Bosch books (Connelly also writes legal thrillers featuring an attorney named Mickey Haller, including The Lincoln Lawyer, on which the film starring Matthew McConaughey was based) fall into the classic police procedural category, a genre that begins with the protagonist (usually a detective of police) being assigned to a case (usually a murder) and investigating it, step-by-step, until the malefactor is arrested or otherwise brought to justice.

True to this form, in The Black Box Bosch fights departmental indifference, a hostile and essentially imbecilic supervisor, an internal affairs investigation and a crooked law enforcement executive while methodically investigating the coldest of cold cases: the execution-style murder of a Danish freelance reporter and photographer during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.

The hero of this novel has the virtue of verisimilitude: Unlike Child, whose hero, Jack Reacher, is a superman, genius and expert marksman, Connelly keeps his action believable by presenting a protagonist who is a somewhat creaky police veteran close to retirement age. Harry Bosch makes deductive mistakes and sometimes misses clues or misinterprets them. Although he is a good marksman with his handgun, he can’t free himself from bonds by brute strength, or overcome a half-dozen villains in hand-to-hand combat; in one section of this novel, he exhausts himself simply by walking through a muddy orchard after nightfall.

Black Box author Michael Connelly uses police jargon sparingly
but to great effect.

What’s more, Bosch sounds like the cop he is. Connelly uses police jargon sparingly, but the terminology he inserts in his dialog has the ring of authenticity.  His other characters also have unique voices.

Consider the section of the book when Bosch takes his teenage daughter, a handgun enthusiast, to the police range for simulated "shoot-don’t-shoot" exercises. Both Bosch and the range master are jazz fans, and their discussion of different musicians seems as natural and credible as the technical terminology they use to discuss the simulations Bosch and his daughter face. 

And although the musical discussion turns on artists who are probably unknown to the average reader, Connelly makes it easy to follow and the interchange helps to establish Bosch and his police chum as real people with interests outside their jobs as cops.

Compare this to the stultifying Popular Mechanics approach Lee Child uses in the Reacher books, each of which contains thousands of words of technical readout about guns and ammunition that do little to push the story forward or make Reacher seem like a real flesh-and-blood individual. 

Connelly also manages to cover the procedural bases of his novel by recapping his protagonist’s investigative techniques, explaining what he does and why without suffocating readers with too many boring details, dead ends and bum tips.

He skillfully adds texture and depth to his story by giving us glimpses into Bosch’s fitful romantic life, his relationship with his daughter and his interaction with his departmental co-workers, but he doesn’t overwhelm us with personal details that pull us away from the mystery his detective is trying to solve.

In other words, everything in The Black Box is there for a reason, which adds to the satisfaction the reader feels when the climax occurs.

And not every loose end is neatly tied up at the end of the book: enough strands are still trailing that the reader actually hopes some of them will be taken in hand in the next installment of the Bosch saga.  For instance, when we finish the last page of this novel, we are unsure how Bosch will manage to recover a working relationship with his moronic boss and whether he will somehow patch up his romantic entanglement with the social worker he has been dating. Most intriguingly, we never find out why internal affairs Detective Nancy Mendenhall, the investigator who has been probing misconduct allegations against Bosch, takes critical actions that put her on the scene at the novel’s denouement.
(To discuss Mendenhall’s role in too much detail would raise spoilers, but suffice to say her actions remain a mystery when the book is over, and I, for one, suspect we are going to see more of her in future Bosch thrillers.)

The police procedural style has yielded a large number of popular crime classics, among which are the 87th Precinct stories by Evan Hunter (Ed McBain),  gritty LAPD detective novels by Joseph Wambaugh such as The Blue Knight and The Choirboys, the Jim Cree/Joe Leaphorn tribal police stories of Tony Hillerman, tales involving Martin Cruz Smith’s politically incorrect Russian militsia detective, Arkady Renko, and the Martin Beck series by husband and wife team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

Because they closely adhere to established investigative techniques and often feature them as a key element of the narrative, procedural novels have gained sufficient international popularity to allow the main characters to be shifted out of their native countries in motion pictures based on them. 

For example, Sjowall and Wahloo’s protagonist in The Laughing Policeman, Martin Beck, became Jake Martin, a San Francisco detective in Stuart Rosenberg’s  1973 film version; and Hunter’s 87th Precinct investigators from the novel King’s Ransom (1959) were transformed into a Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department team investigating a kidnaping in Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 movie, High and Low.

But one of the things I most enjoy about procedurals is that they frequently fit into the red noir category of literature that I have discussed in some of my earlier essays:  thrillers that serve up a critique of modern capitalist society while masquerading as entertaining genre fiction.

The Black Box certainly fits this pattern: Bosch’s investigation uncovers corruption in high places as well as the use of corporate profits to buy influence and political power. A public servant is unmasked as an assassin who serves as a hired thug for a twisted businessman.  While he is trying to ferret out the truth, Bosch suffers interference from a departmental superior who could be a pointy-haired boss right out of the comic strip, Dilbert. In fact, his immediate boss, Lieutenant O’Toole, is a living example of the Peter Principle: managers tend to receive promotions until they reach their level of maximum incompetence.

Bosch even runs afoul of the LAPD’s chief of police, who inserts himself in the case for political reasons in a way that threatens the detective’s ability to close it with a definitive solution after two decades. Through all this capitalist corruption and administrative ineptitude, Bosch soldiers on, the rumpled knight without illusions that Raymond Chandler wrote about in his 1950 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder:”

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.”

That brief passage describes Michael Connelly’s detective, Harry Bosch, perfectly.  I feel better for having had the opportunity to meet him in The Black Box, and I look forward to a long and satisfying friendship with him in the future.

Five nooses!