Monday, February 9, 2015

Why Michael Connelly is so great

Michael Connelly does not need my praise, but I've been thinking about some of the reasons why I think he's one of the best crime writers in America.

1) He knows where to start the story for maximum dramatic effect. Here are the first two sentences of his latest Harry Bosch mystery, The Burning Room: "It seemed to Bosch to be a form of torture heaped upon torture. Corazon was hunched over the steel table, her bloody and gloved hands deep inside the gutted torso, working with forceps and a long-bladed instrument she called the 'butter knife.'" We are watching an autopsy that initiates an investigation into a 10-year-old shooting.

2) He limits the point of view to Harry Bosch. The reader knows only what Bosch knows. This means Bosch has to learn things from his partner, a young detective named Lucy Soto, and from other people. So the book is crowded with names and places, but we are able to keep track easily and the flow feels natural.

3) His account of LA police procedures and politics ring absolutely true. Because I do not know Los Angeles well, I cannot tell whether places are where Connelly says they are—but I suspect they are. Using real streets, neighborhoods, and locations lends the book authority and verisimilitude.

4) The puzzle Bosch has to solve is both complex and plausible. He is working on a both a 10-year-old shooting and a 21-year-old arson case and the action stops long enough for Bosch and his partner to compare notes, or for Bosch to report to his superiors on his progress, which helps the reader keep track of what's going on.

5) Connelly is able to introduce history (back story) naturally without interrupting the story's flow. For example, Bosch and the reader learn the details of the arson case by reading about it from departmental records. At another point he is talking to a retired detective about an old case and he recalls "the infamous 1997 shoot-out in the streets outside a Bank of America branch in North Hollywood." Bosch played only the most minor role in the incident (part of the team securing the crime scene after it was all over), but the memory has its role.

6) His characters are neither paragons of virtue nor embodiments of evil. Bosch is, in some ways, a loose cannon, although he will get a search warrant when he needs one. He's doing his best to be a good father to his teenage daughter. When Bosch and Lucy meet a neo-Nazi ex-con witness, perhaps the most unpleasant character in the book, the guy seems more pitiful than viscous for all his vitriol.

7) He does not rely on coincidence to help the story along. I believe there is only one incident that might be considered coincidence in the entire 388 pages (a news story that happens to appear on the back of a news clipping Bosch is reading). But it is so natural few readers would question it.

8) The dialogue is crisp and at times funny. For example, a reward has been offered and Bosch gets one of the tip callers who says: "I want to register for the reward."
"What do you mean 'register,' sir? It's not a lottery. Do you have information that can help us?"
"Yeah. I got information. The shooter is named Jose. You can mark it down."
"Jose what?"
"I don't know that part. I just know it's Jose."
"How do you know this?"
"I just do."
"He was the shooter."
"That's right."
"Do you know this man? Do you know why he did it?"
"No, but I'm sure you will get all of that once you arrest him."
"Where do I arrest him?"
The man on the other end of the line seemed to scoff at the question.
"I don't know that. You're the detective."
"Okay, sir, so you are saying that I need to go out and find and arrest a man named Jose. No last name, no known whereabouts. Do you know what he looks like?"
"He looks Mexican."
"Okay, sir, thank you." Bosch hung up the phone, banging it hard into the cradle. "Douche bag," he said to himself....

9) The descriptions of places and people are crisp and to the point. For example: "Ojeda was sitting at a small table. Seeing him in the cold light of the room, Bosch saw that he was a handsome man with a full head of jet-black hair, smooth skin, and a trim built. There was a weariness or sadness in his dark eyes...."

10) He saves a final twist for the last seven pages of the book. It's entirely plausible, a complete surprise—and I'm not going to spoil it here.

I'm sure there's more—and these notes could easily apply to almost any novel. We who are still learning should be taking notes.

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