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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, February 22, 2014

Michael Connelly's "Switchblade" Doesn't Quite Cut It

By Michael Connelly
Print Length: 72 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (January 14, 2014)
Sold by: Hachette Book Group

Switchblade, a cold case story by Michael Connelly, the creator of LAPD detective Harry Bosch and Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller, leaves a reader feeling disappointed. Not because the story is badly written. Not a bit.

It disappoints because it is too single-minded, too direct and too darned short.

This is a “story,” not a novel, and it is advertised as such, one of Amazon’s 99 cent specials. Actually it is more of a novella than anything else: a bit too short to be considered a novel, but much longer than your average short story.

The plot centers on a stabbing death that has languished for two decades among the Los Angeles Police Department’s cold cases – homicides in which no suspects were immediately found but the evidence was preserved against the day when a second look might lead to a solution.

The victim, Billy Ratliff, was a teenage street hustler who committed petty crimes to keep his head above water. His perforated corpse was found in the ruins of the old Brown Derby restaurant after the joint was destroyed in the 1992 L.A. riots.  The weapon used: a cheap switchblade knife purchased in Tijuana.

That’s where Harry Bosch, Connelly’s “cold case” expert, enters the picture.

Emily, a woman who sorts cases for Bosch’s “open-unsolved” homicide unit, gets an anonymous call that identifies Ratliff’s killer as a Patrick Seward – who happens to be doing time for a similar murder. She passes the tip on to Bosch and the game is afoot. 

Except that in this case it is only about ten inches.

How Harry relates the two cases and pulls them together sufficiently to take to the district attorney, takes up the majority of the slim 72 pages Connelly has written. There is a twist ending to the story that a dedicated fan might figure out ahead of time, but Connelly does a good job of holding back his cards so that the surprise development should really surprise most readers nicely.

L.A.P.D. "Cold Case" investigator Harry Bosch
is the creation of crime novelist Michael Connelly. (Photo courtesy of MichaelConnelly.com)

Though the story is shorter than the usual Harry Bosch thriller, Harry is still Harry, and the police procedure Connelly walks him through is credible and involving. There are only a handful of other characters in the tale, but all of them are sketched fully, if briefly, as the tale unfolds.

If there is a problem with the story – and I feel that there is – it lies in the fact that Switchblade is too brief for those of us who normally look forward to a Harry Bosch yarn.

In the average Bosch tale readers get the requisite central case to chew over, but they also get a lot more. For one thing, Bosch has a frequently uncomfortable relationship with David Chu, his normal partner, who feels Bosch looks on him as a relative lightweight that Bosch has to work around instead of as a partner and equal. This fractious relationship is frequently at the foreground in a full-length Bosch thriller.

There is also Bosch’s teenage daughter, Maddie, who serves as a foil to the detective, and a reminder of his mortality. Finally, Connelly populates his novels with a squadroom full of other minor and major characters, most of whom have made repeat appearances in the Bosch novels.   

All of these people add a realistic texture to the Bosch series, but they also supply concurrent story lines and cross-plots that keep the books lively and entertaining. Frankly, Switchblade, because of its narrow focus and less complicated plot, lacks the density and richness of the novels.

In other words, for a buck, Switchblade gives a good hour or so worth of entertainment, but it fails to rise to the fully first-rate quality of a Bosch novel. I believe that others have commented on this as a failing of Connelly’s shorter works before – specifically Suicide Run, a collection of three of his short pieces that was published in 2011.

To me it also raises questions the new Harry Bosch television series that is in development by Amazon.com. As most readers are aware, a short story is the ideal length narrative for development as a film or one-hour TV show: it generally lacks the complex story line, expanded time frame and larger cast of characters of a novel, which makes it easier to translate into a short film. 

That means the material that will form the basis for the individual Bosch television shows will probably be shorter pieces like Switchblade.

There’s nothing wrong with that.  But Connelly’s legion of Bosch fans may find the results a little disappointing. 

You can judge for yourself, though: the television series' pilot has been scheduled for release in February, and the finished product is now available on your own TV screen by way of Amazon Instant Video.

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