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Sunday January 27, 2013

Going great guns

Two decades on and one of crime fiction’s most engaging and interesting detectives is still irritating his bosses and still doggedly getting his man.

The Black Box
Author: Michael Connelly
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing,403 pages

THE Black Box is the 18th Harry Bosch novel and it marks the 20th anniversary of the release of the first, The Black Dahlia, published in 1992. In those 20 years, Michael Connelly has established one of the most convincing and enduring investigators in the canon of crime fiction and one of the most reliable “good reads” in the genre.

So to mark the anniversary, it is worth asking why this particular series has received so much critical acclaim and along the way notched up worldwide sales of some 40 million books.

Harry Bosch himself is, of course, a large part of the appeal. When Harry first appeared he was emotionally damaged after a fraught and dislocated childhood, armed with a sense of social justice and a personal code of ethics best summarised in the catch phrase that “everyone counts or nobody counts”.

Bosch’s pursuit of the criminal and evil was relentless and authority figures were brushed aside if they stood in his way. No respecter of rank or power, Bosch’s commitment to the victim and to justice was absolute. It was a trait that did not sit well with a number of his superior officers and it is a trait that has endured throughout the series, as much a part of the The Black Box as of any of its predecessors.

The 20 years have seen Bosch change without altering the principles that initially inspired him to become a cop. In those years he has loved and lost, been suspended and re-instated, retired from and returned to work, abandoned current crime and taken on “cold cases” that have languished unsolved, the souls of their victims left crying for justice.

One of Connelly’s skills has been to make Bosch credible at all stages of his life and to flesh out the police operative into a full human being. The Black Box sees him trying too hard with his prickly 16-year-old daughter and Connelly’s writing of those intimate family scenes is as convincing as his charting of Bosch’s professional life.

Which brings us neatly to the mechanics of a police procedural. I doubt that there is anyone writing anywhere who is better at describing the mechanics of police work than Connelly. In part, of course, this harks back to his days as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times but for sure one of the fascinations of reading any of his novels is the detailed way in which cases are investigated and leads pursued.

The key word here is “detailed” – each Bosch case unravels with care, precision and logic. In The Black Box this process starts with the slenderest of clues: a bullet casing from a murder committed 20 years earlier. But the casing leads Bosch to a bullet and the bullet to a gun and the gun to a source in the US military ... it is logical, precise and inexorable. Connelly has always been a master plotter and The Black Box is no exception.

And then there is the writing itself. Connelly contrasts quite noticeably with another of my favourite crime writers, James Lee Burke, in that he makes no attempt to bring a poetic note to his work. Perhaps this is a function of place: Burke is clearly enchanted by the beauty of the bayou and America’s Deep South whereas Los Angeles, the setting of virtually the entire Bosch series, is a cold, hard and frequently brutal cityscape.

What you get instead is terse description and outstanding dialogue that both nails character and moves the plot forward. Despite the apparent simplicity, there is a considerable amount of technical skill involved.

So, finally, to The Black Box itself. Bosch is back working unsolved cases and the one he picks is “Snow White”, the murder of a white female photojournalist from Denmark, killed execution style in an alleyway during the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles (sparked by the acquittal of white policemen accused of beating up King, a black man).

There is nothing to go on, except for the bullet casing, and Bosch’s desire to follow this case rather than the many cases involving black victims is politically unpopular with his superiors whose eye is always on media coverage. Undeterred, Bosch follows one of the oldest mantras in crime detection: follow the gun. But first he has to find it.

It is a process that leads him into the gang-ridden backstreets of LA, to characters with names like 2Small and Tru Story, then back to the gun’s source and on to sordid events involving US military personnel. The killing, it turns out, was not random at all and was certainly not an unfortunate by-product of the riots. Whoever had it in for Anneke Jespersen had a clear and planned agenda.

As Bosch nears his final retirement there are hints in The Black Box of where Connelly may take us next. Maddie, his daughter, is firmly convinced that she too wants to join the force. Are we to see a new generation and a new approach? Possibly, but for now I’ll more than happily settle for an ageing Harry Bosch and the meticulous police work that has brought so many evil “perps” to final justice.

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