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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. . .

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!

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