Murder in Los Angeles

Murder in Los Angeles
Carol M. Highsmith America Collection/Library of Congress via AP
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With "The Late Show," mystery novelist Michael Connelly introduces a new character, Detective Renee Ballard of the Los Angeles Police Department. One of the best writers in the crime fiction genre working today, Connelly has several characters that inhabit his fictional Los Angeles. The best known are the two half-brothers, semi-retired police detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch and lawyer Mickey Haller. He has enjoyed real success with both characters. His Bosch books have been adopted into an Amazon television series, "Bosch," while his first Haller novel became the Matthew McConaughey film, "The Lincoln Lawyer."

Connelly lets his characters age in real life. Bosch is a Vietnam veteran and in his late sixties. That is a problem.  Connelly has become quite successful, but there is only so long that the character can realistically be pursuing bad guys. Connelly has also been dropping hints in his writing and in interviews that Bosch’s time might be nearing an end. What is a novelist to do? If a character reaches the end of his story, then you are done, but writers only make money when they are writing. The answer: develop new characters. 

Enter Detective Ballard. And with respect to the British rock band The Who and far less cynicism: meet the new Michael Connelly, same as the old Michael Connelly. 

Fans of Connelly’s writing will enjoy this new character. Most of the major elements in Connelly’s storytelling are present: central character is committed to the cause of policing to the exclusion of other activities. Check.  Protagonist is a rebel against the bureaucracy of the LAPD, and has a messed up personal life. Check and check.  Prefers to work alone. Talks with their hands. Two more checks. 

Much of Connelly’s early work featured a false conclusion where law enforcement—generally the weak bureaucratic managers supervising the central character—make incorrect assessments of the evidence and think the case is solved, before realizing they are wrong. That plot element is absent in "The Late Show."  Instead Connelly goes with having Ballard work two cases that are independent of one another. He has used this construction in some of his more recent novels, and this approach is probably an exceptionally realistic element of every day police work. 

People expecting a new voice will probably be disappointed. The Ballard character is more of a detective than she is female. Connelly has had strong female characters before, but mainly in supporting roles. In this book, he puts Ballard in physical peril, which he has done previously with several other lead characters, but in this instance there is an element of sexual assault. Turning strong, female police characters into the victims of sexual assault is a fairly common plot turn in crime fiction, particularly on television. The thinking presumably has something to do with having an actress show their dramatic range or making a run at an Emmy or some other acting award. But for the reader it is a fairly predictable plot twist. Connelly, to his credit, introduces a heavy element of ambiguity. Individual readers will probably come to very different conclusions and that probably says more about them than the author. 

For those readers who do not enjoy the alterations the Bosch television series took with the Harry Bosch character or that film studios have taken with his novels—Clint Eastwood massively altered the storyline of "Blood Work"—Connelly actually makes a clever reference to the program in the novel, minimizing the alternations and making it clear that these cinematic adaptations do not really count. Whatever happens to Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch on television or—more importantly—in the novels, the Renee Ballard character makes it clear that Michael Connelly has no plans to stop writing. And that is a good thing.

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