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Why do we love mysteries and crime fiction so much? (And admit it, you do.) What are we looking for? Escape? Resolution, or even redemption? Maybe it’s the comfort of a protagonist who becomes a companion we know and return to, case after case. The best writers of such fiction satisfy all of those whys, and no one more so than Michael Connelly.
So let’s move on to the hows. First, he has a nose for a good story (it served him particularly well in coming up with The Lincoln Lawyer). It’s a sense he developed early on, reading his mom’s genteel mystery books and later devouring Raymond Chandler’s rough-and-tumble oeuvre in its entirety, falling in love with his portrayal of 1940s and ’50s Los Angeles. It was a long-distance romance for a kid from Fort Lauderdale, FL, but at least he could run down the local angle. Connelly got a job on the crime beat at the Daytona Beach News Journal, and then at the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel, where he covered the South Florida cocaine wars. His work there earned him a Pulitzer nomination, and fatefully, in 1987, a job with the Los Angeles Times. But Connelly didn’t become a crime reporter to be a crime reporter; he became a crime reporter to become a crime fiction writer.
Which he did, in short order. After three years at the Times, he wrote his first published novel, The Black Echo, which introduced the world to his best-known character, Harry Bosch. Publisher’s Weekly said the tale “could substitute as a local guide book for an uninvited lowlife house guest. Connelly expertly combines the federal and local investigative procedurals with his journalist’s cold eye for accuracy. As an alternative to spending the weekend standing in line for a thrill ride, you might want to put Sonny Rollins on the stereo, grab a cold one, and crack open The Black Echo.”
After three more Bosch books followed to similar praise (and a big PR boost when Bill Clinton was snapped exiting a bookstore with a copy of The Concrete Blonde tucked under his arm), Connelly felt confident enough to quit the crime beat and start writing full time. He hasn’t stopped since.
In her review of last year’s The Wrong Side of Goodbye, noted critic Janet Maslin wrote, “The classic mystery plotting and streamlined storytelling are what render [Connelly] so readable. Of all the big-name writers who dominate this genre, Mr. Connelly is the most solid, old-school pro.” But you need more than a nose for crime, a PhD in plotting and an in at the LAPD to do what Connelly’s done, which is essentially to raise the page turner to something approaching art. In Connelly’s case, it’s the sense of place and broody glamour that’s so evocative on Bosch, the Amazon series based on his novels, and which underlies the elegiac tone of Blood Work, Clint Eastwood’s movie adaptation of Connelly’s 1998 book of the same name.
Maybe his unique sensibility is explained in his comparison of his work to Hieronymus Bosch paintings, with their multitudes of miscreants that wander the canvas. “They’re busy with stuff happening in every quadrant of the painting. It’s not all related, but yet, it is. In a Bosch painting, you can spend an entire day looking at one corner, and look at another corner of the painting the next day.” Not unlike the City of Angels itself. (And if you still need clues about how he came up with Harry’s full name, with all due respect, you are no gumshoe.)
Connelly has written a book a year for the last 20, and won nearly every major award ever given to mystery writers, amassing legion fans and continuing to inspire screen adaptations along the way.
Despite that pace, he is no churner; his process is organic. He’s known to listen to meditative jazz as he writes. He knows the beginning and end of his stories, but the middle is all improv. His characters often escape their own series and interweave, coming and going from those of their fellow creations. The most recent is LAPD Detective Renee Ballard, his first female to be given prime billing in her own series, which kicks off with The Late Show. Despite its initial doubts, The New York Times concluded Connelly could write women. “This new star is a beauty,” ran their recent review. “Smart and fierce, she never stops working, to the point of making Bosch look like a slouch. The novel moves so quickly, racking up so many witnesses and suspects, that it ought to be hard to follow. But Connelly expertly hides a trail of bread crumbs that leads straight to the denouement, with so much else going on that it’s impossible to see where he’s heading.”
Part of Connelly’s genius is satisfying the resolution demanded of crime novels while building them around protagonists whose lives remain complicated. We’re in for the people as much as the plot. They’re smart, tough, messy, sad, wry and funny. Bosch in particular keeps us coming back because unlike most of us, his convictions are never quite eclipsed by his cynicism. No wonder we want to ride along time and time again. Come take a spin with a guy we’ve loved shadowing for the last 25 years.