Michael Connelly (pic above) is not only one of the best crime writers around but also one of the most consistent. I have read most of his 30-plus novels, mostly featuring Harry Bosch, and would be hard put to find one that has disappointed.
With Connelly you know what you are going to get: a detailed, well-thought through police procedural. Connelly is not a great believer in the “inspiration and genius” Sherlock Holmes school of crime writing. Instead, his homicides are solved by meticulous, detailed examination of evidence. The answer, he believes, is always “in the book” that detectives compile during the course of their investigation. Certainly there are the occasional lucky breaks – but the exhaustive preliminary ground work is usually what precipitates them.
As an ex-crime reporter on The Los Angeles Times and with close contacts in the Los Angeles Police Department, Connelly is well placed to write procedural thrillers. When I saw him live in interview a couple of years ago he was at pains to credit the researchers he can call on for verification. The result for the reader is to be walked step-by-step through the crime scene, the witness reports, the identification of suspects and, in some cases, the successful closure of a case with the apprehension of the perpetrator.
But not all cases are successfully closed. Dark Sacred Night opens with Harry Bosch, now retired but working voluntarily, re-visiting a case that has haunted him for years. The victim is a 15-year-old runaway turned junkie and hooker, Daisy Clayton, whose body was found in a garbage skip. The case has added resonance for Bosch because he has given up the guest room in his house to Daisy’s mother, Elizabeth, in an effort to keep her off the street and off drugs.
One of Bosch’s first moves is to go through the notes written by the investigating detectives nine years earlier, filed in the Hollywood division. And that’s where co-protagonist Renee Ballard finds him at 3am. “The man Ballard saw now opening another drawer to check its contents was not a detective she recognised, and she knew them all from once a month squad meetings that drew her to the station during daylight hours … Ballard instinctively knew he didn’t belong….”
In all senses, Bosch does not really “belong”, having battled with his superiors and local politicians for years, actions which have precipitated his retirement. And Ballard also does not “belong”, having been assigned to the graveyard shift of night work after filing a complaint of sexual harassment against a superior officer. These are two loners who are united in the search for justice, two detectives who share the belief that, in the words of Bosch’s mantra, “everybody counts or nobody counts”. After initially circling each other with suspicion, Bosch and Ballard become an effective team.
Ballard was introduced by Connelly in The Late Show (2017) but this is the first novel in which she shares equal billing with Bosch. Certainly her initial back story is compelling. Ballard’s only companion is her dog and her home is a tent on the beach. She is held in contempt by many male members of the force. As a character, she is not yet Bosch’s equal but given Connelly’s ability to create strong supporting characters who become leads in their own right (I am thinking particularly of the Lincoln Lawyer) it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her grow in strength. Mean-while, the partnership of Bosch and Ballard gets a pretty good initial runout in Dark Sacred Night.
This is a book in which there is a lot going on. As well as the cold case of Daisy Clayton, both Bosch and Ballard are working other cases. There is a body high up on Hollywood Boulevard which has a grisly feline twist. There is a possible break-in through the roof of a local strip joint. And worse, from Bosch’s perspective, is a brush with the San Fers, a particularly nasty and brutal San Francisco gang. I am offering no hints on these; suffice it to say that both felines and canines get a higher than average profile in this book.
Dark Sacred Night is told through alternating sections titled either Ballard or Bosch, a device that enables Connelly not only to move their respective stories and cases forward but also allows them individually to reflect on the other person. Despite a niggling hankering on my part to get on to the next Bosch section, I have to admit that this worked well.
Dark Sacred Night has all the hallmarks of Connelly’s extremely successful writing: well-plotted, fast paced and compelling.
There is bleakness here as well. Bosch is ageing and there is still so much evil out there that needs to be brought into the light. Even if one cold case is solved, the filing cabinet is full of others. But Bosch is undaunted.
“Badge or no badge, it doesn’t matter … I don’t know how much time I’ve got left, but whatever I have, I want to use it to go out there and find people like XXXX (spoiler!). And one way or another, take them off the board.”
In Ballard, Bosch has found someone as determined and thirsty for justice as he is.