The Black Echo by Michael Connelly (Orion)

“The boy couldn’t see in the dark, but he didn’t need to.”

How to write a best seller? Michael Connelly has sold 80 million copies of his books. This is how he began…

Bosch wakes from a Vietnam nightmare. The pager rings. There is a body down the pipe. First smoke of the day. First  Aspirins of the day. Uniforms are disturbing a crime scene. Sorry about that, says the sergeant. Already the jargon is flying – the ME, the SID, the hype, the spike, the DB = dead body. Bosch hitches up his Smith and Wesson 9mm, covers for his partner, moonlighting as an estate agent. Fill in some background, some LA scenery, sky blue, wisps of white, nothing over the top just a few social mentions of the drought and wondering who the damn was built for, a few smells of crops being sprayed.

He is a tough guy. Wiry say the newspapers. The ex-tunnel rat is going down a pipe again to find the body. Something is not right. This is page 11. Pathology arrive…

There are currently 25 Harry Bosch books. Plus another 12 including the Lincoln Lawyer and Mickey Haller. This was Michael Connelly’s first. Written in 1992. There are other reviews here and here and and here and here!

The style is more script than novel, a camera chases the action, thoughts are engrained, cliches burnished, dialogue combative.

Bosch is trying to get through to the station. He admonishes:

Somebody could die in the time it took to answer this phone. “Get me the duty sergeant.”

It is a small detail but already it tells us, on page 4, if we are being fictional detectives here, that Bosch has little truck with bureaucracy, with the uniforms and does not mind saying so. He has a higher calling. Death. Or rather the aftermath. Vietnam, LA what is the difference? This is the south and he is wearing a gun. The duty sergeant is not so much sheriff, but an old Gunsmoke Chester clinking the keys to the jail.

But also another perspective is already nailed – he is on call, he sleeps in a chair fully dressed, insomniac, stiff, going grey, 40 something, forgot to buy toothpaste. And that is one of Connelly’s great skills – he can ram in the details fast and loose so before you skip a chapter you feel informed. We know we are in LA. We know there are things going on. Things we can relate to. Or not. The dead man has a broken finger. Harry notices these things. He is the pivot around which everything revolves.

Do we care about the victim? Hardly, maybe only retrospectively. Harry is the now. We care that Harry gets it sorted, whatever. Murder, fine. Ordering a take-out, fine.

Harry has a back story. He has a mother too, she also has a backstory. Harry is not trying to date Hollywood starlets, he is down the pipe looking for a discarded half can of Coke that might have been used as a stove to cook some heroin. The whole Uncle-Sam-gets-the-job-done is loaded up in Harry’s pistol.

I have not, as yet, passed page 20…

The literary nuts and bolts are:

  • a journey around Los Angeles
  • a sequential set of clues
  • scenes drawn in dialogue
  • back story characterisation

Bosch was thrown out of RH – robbery and homicide – for being too tough.

We don’t get any pause in the unrolling of events, no storytelling, until page 68, when Bosch gets home and has a beer. Connelly allows himself a little extra colour, relaxing the text along with his hero with a little description:

“The setting sun burned the sky pink and orange in the same bright hues as the surfers’ bathing suits.”

And we get to know our man a bit more. By page 72 we find out why this book is called Black Echo. Connelly shies away from obvious titles. This is no Strange Death of H Meadows. Or Good Cop Down.

The plot then takes a mighty swerve. Woaw! And we have this wonderful piece of description about deputy chief Irvin Irving’s teeth, a portrait that might stand against any example of fine American writing.

We have moved into a different plane now, it is army v police enforcement. I still have not reached page 100…356 to go…

Apart from Thelia King, also known as King or preferably Elvis, in computer records, a few distant mothers and a blonde jogger, we have not encountered any women so far. Enter la femme on page 132. What can she make of this outsider, this rough diamond, this unreconstructed southern male? Is there a heart of gold or just the unreformed unreformable? Part three – woman v man. Quite how this going to break down has its own frisson, although we gather she can take care of herself…but now the balance is more about them than the deceased.

“Harry”, she says, “That’s speculation on top of speculation.”

“That’s what cops do,” he replies.

By page 199 we are offered a moral construct, the prison within the prison system, but this one  exclusively for the veterans. We get our man back. Even should they fall and get sent to goal, there is a prison farm for ex-vets to rehabilitate and straighten them out.

By this point, and maybe it is because over the years I have become, we have become as readers and watchers of TV detective crimos, hardwired. Person A is not going to survive. Harry will, he has other capers to assign. The villain is person B. It is a crossword puzzle. The key is in the box. It is a crime scene Sudoko. We are getting there. It can only be… and then we get a third swerve in the plot. We move from micro to macro. Woaw!!

Connelly has a habit, I won’t call it a device, of sometimes handing the camera over to another character for a few paragraphs or even pages, so you get to see inside their lives, their heads too. And then every now and then out pops a piece of A1 description:

“Porter could still wear a size 34 belt, but above it a tremendous gut bloomed outward like an awning…His face was gaunt and as pallid as a flour tortilla, behind a drinker’s nose that was large, misshapen and painfully red.”

When he wants. He can. Write.

We know now this becomes a series of Bosch books but at heart this original is a novel about the Vietnam veteran making his way back into society through police work.

Overshadowing everyone is the city itself. Los Angeles earns more character traits than its inhabitants, like it is a breathing mass, Wiltshire, Olympic, Robertson, Doheny might be round the corner.

And what Connelly is also masterly at is the action sequences, in one case he actually says it was like watching a slow motion movie reel. Or here:

“He was gripping the steering wheel at the ten and two o’clock positions, urging the car on as if he held the reins of a galloping horse.”

It is all very specific, mundane even, relentless and believable. We are in the front seat with him. We are drinking coffee with him. We are interviewing the suspect with him. We are in his head. Searchlights on. Brain ticking. Gun to hand. We are his silent partner in all things, except when he has to go to the wash room, which he does, rather occasionally. And as a former crime reporter for the LA Times, he knows his patch.

It may have spawned a series, but it is a grand novel in its own right, even if the ending is a little too forced, just a tad hammy, but Harry will drive you there in style, I might have taken a different fork in the road plotwise, but Harry’s driving.

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About drewsmith28

Words, words, words...
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