Book review: Michael Connelly’s ‘The Black Box’
By Patrick Anderson,
In 1992, Michael Connelly’s first novel, “The Black Echo,” introduced Detective Harry Bosch of the Los Angeles Police Department. Now, 20 years later, we have the 18th Bosch novel, “The Black Box.” I decided several years ago that this is the finest crime series written by an American, and nothing in the new book changes my mind. I do have one complaint about the novel, but it concerns the crime-fiction genre itself as much as it does Connelly’s storytelling.
In recent novels, Harry, in his 60s, has been working cold cases. The hard-drinking, hot-headed detective of the early books has matured and become a practitioner of “the blue religion,” a man sworn to “speak for the dead.” “The Black Box” opens with a chilling portrait of the war zone that L.A.’s South Central neighborhood became during the riots in the spring of 1992. When the body of an attractive young woman, a Danish journalist, is found in an alley, shot to death, Harry investigates, but amid the turmoil the case is not solved.
In 2012, Harry reopens the investigation. His only lead is the 9mm shell casing he found near the woman’s body. But the technology has advanced so far in two decades that it’s possible to match the casing to a specific gun. Then he must determine which of several gang members had possession of the gun at the time of the shooting. Harry follows the evidence step by step as it leads him from south-central to other, seemingly respectable suspects. As always, Bosch’s painstaking investigation reflects Connelly’s unsurpassed grasp of police work.
However, there comes a moment in virtually all police and private-eye novels when the genre demands that the hero either make a mistake or be tricked and fall into the clutches of the villain. Thus an overzealous Harry, despite warnings, rushes headlong into danger and is captured, handcuffed, facing death. Fortunately, the villain himself, like all villains, then does something equally dumb and Harry survives. (No spoiler here — the hero invariably survives. In reading hundreds of these novels, I’ve encountered exactly two dead heroes.)
The hero who is helpless, then triumphant, has his origins in mythology and embodies a deep human need for indomitable champions. In terms of popular fiction, Harry is precisely this brand of hero, but Connelly should have made his fall and rise more plausible this time out.
Still, “The Black Box” is two stories. It’s a police procedural, but it also continues the saga of Harry’s personal life. There are few fictional characters we know so well; Harry is an old friend now. We’ve seen him progress from wild man to a kind of saint. We know about the murder of his mother, the foster homes, the horrors in Vietnam, the lovers who left him and the ones who died.
We know, too, that several books back, Harry discovered that he had a daughter; the girl’s mother moved on without revealing her pregnancy. Now Madeline is 16 and living with him. In one recent novel, she was kidnapped, and Harry rushed to Hong Kong to rescue her from white slavers. All this was too obvious, pulp material, and “Nine Dragons” was one of Connelly’s lesser efforts. This one, detailing the love between father and daughter, as well as the inevitable conflicts, is far more satisfying.
Madeline prepares a birthday dinner, but Harry worries about how she obtained the beer she served. In fact, she had an adult friend pick up a six-pack, and she’s furious at his lack of trust. Later he watches her read “The Catcher in the Rye” and cry at its ending. Harry has never been a reader; they didn’t provide books in his foster homes. Madeline tells him, “You were robbed of things early. I think that made you want to be a policeman.” It’s a profound insight for a girl her age. On another occasion, Harry, who embodies Connelly’s love of jazz, plays her Art Pepper’s live 1981 recording of his song “Patricia,” which he considers the most moving saxophone work he knows. He explains that Pepper was often separated from Patricia, his daughter, while he was imprisoned for heroin use, and in the song he’s telling her how much he loves her.
The music speaks for Harry, too, who feels guilt for his time away from Madeline. She’s an unusual girl. Already, she wants to be a cop. Harry thinks she’d be a good one; she’s been robbed of things, too. He does all he can “to help prepare her for the mission ahead.” Perhaps one day Connelly will write a novel all about Madeline.
Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Washington Post.
THE BLACK BOX By Michael Connelly Little, Brown. 403 pp. $27.99