Harry Bosch, Back in Force

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, May 17, 2005


By Michael Connelly

Little, Brown. 403 pp. $26.95

Nearly three years ago, after about two decades as a homicide detective in the Los Angeles Police Department, Harry Bosch left the force and became a private eye. He may have thought he was going to become another Philip Marlowe -- the wry, laconic protagonist of Raymond Chandler's classic novels -- but it didn't work out that way. To be sure, in "The Narrows" (2004), he cracked a case that had driven the FBI nuts for years, but it turns out that for all his renegade, anti-organizational tendencies he's a cop at heart: "I need the gun. I need the badge. Otherwise I'm out of balance. I need all of this. Okay?"

Okay indeed. Thanks to a policy instituted by the LAPD's reform-minded new chief under which cops can return to the force if they've been away less than three years, Harry once again has his gun, his badge and the only job he really loves. His assignment, though, is different. He's been posted to Open-Unsolved, a new department charged with cracking old cases. As the chief welcomes him back, he speaks with feeling about the task that Bosch faces. He mentions "the chorus of forgotten voices," and when a puzzled Bosch says, "Excuse me, chief?" he elaborates:

"That's what I think about when I think of the cases down there in Open-Unsolved. It's a house of horrors. Our greatest shame. All those cases. All those voices. Every one of them is like a stone thrown into a lake. The ripples move out through time and people. Families, friends, neighbors. How can we call ourselves a city when there are so many ripples, when so many voices have been forgotten by this department?"

In all there are 8,000 cases in Open-Unsolved. The first one assigned to Harry and his partner, Kiz Rider, is a heartbreaker: the murder in 1988 of Rebecca Verloren, 16, beautiful and talented, a girl "on her way to becoming an attractive and confident young woman." Her body had been found not far from her home in Chatsworth. At first her death had been ruled a suicide, but that quickly changed upon further investigation. Police work at the Devonshire Division, "the LAPD's quietest station," was sloppy. Not merely was the killer never found, the cops didn't even get close.

But Bosch is back, and not merely can Becky's grieving parents say thank God, so too can the hundreds of thousands of readers who've made Michael Connelly's Bosch novels -- "The Closers" is the 10th -- among the most popular and critically respected crime novels in print. Connelly, a former reporter on newspapers in Florida and Los Angeles who went straight and started writing fiction about two decades ago, is the real thing: an immensely skilled entertainer who has mastered the requirements and expectations of his genre but also from time to time rises above them. Chandler self-evidently is his muse and occasionally the influence is a bit too blatant, but Connelly writes grown-up novels that -- along with work by the likes of Scott Turow, Elmore Leonard and John Grisham -- remind us that the place to look for serious American fiction is not in the schools of creative writing but out there in the real world.

First and foremost, though, Connelly is an entertainer, and it would be surprising if he took issue with that. He works hard at his craft (he works fast, too) and certainly seems to hold it to high standards, but he doesn't put on airs. Not merely does this eliminate pretentiousness, it also helps maintain freshness. Like John D. MacDonald, who kept Travis McGee going without losing a step through nearly two dozen novels, Connelly shows absolutely no sign of wearing down as he closes in on Bosch's first dozen. As it happens, I retain a particular affection for the earliest Bosch novels -- "The Black Echo," "The Black Ice," "The Concrete Blonde" -- in which the psychological wounds brought home from Vietnam are still giving Bosch nightmares and his anti-authoritarian streak is most evident, but it is interesting to watch the character mature, come to terms with some aspects of conventional society and yet maintain the edge that permits him to throw himself wholeheartedly into every case that comes his way.

Bosch is in his early fifties now, with a 6-year-old daughter whose very existence he discovered only about a year before. She lives in Las Vegas with her mother, Eleanor Wish (remember her from "The Black Echo"?), a former FBI agent who now deals at the casinos, though in the course of "The Closers" mother and daughter head off for a year in the Far East. His late-arriving paternity is an eye-opener for Bosch, one that makes him especially sensitive to the grief of Becky Verloren's parents:

"What if you lost a child by natural causes or accident or circumstances like divorce? Bosch had a daughter he rarely saw. It weighed on him. He knew that near or far his daughter left him completely vulnerable, that he could end up like the mother who preserved a daughter's bedroom like a museum, or the father who was long lost to the world."

Muriel Verloren has left Becky's bedroom almost exactly as it was the day she disappeared; her estranged husband, Robert, a successful restaurateur, was so shattered by Becky's murder that he drifted into booze and then into homelessness. As one of the original investigators tells Bosch: "It was Muriel mostly -- the mother -- who I had talked to. The father . . . there was something going on with him. He didn't do well. He left home, they divorced, the whole thing. Lost the restaurant. Last I heard, he was living on the street. He would show up at the house from time to time and ask Muriel for money."

The Verlorens, Harry immediately understands, are among those "forgotten voices" whom the chief is determined to hear. Bosch is always the tough cop, but his heart is touched by them, and his determination to exact justice for their daughter intensifies. He also admires them because in the days after the crime was discovered, they "chose not to hold their loss out for public consumption. . . . It seemed to him that increasingly the media forced the victims of tragedy to grieve in public, in front of cameras and in newspaper stories. . . . It seemed to him that the best way to honor the dead was to keep them close to the heart, not to share them with the world across the electronic spectrum."

So he's off and running. Thanks to DNA, the crime-solving powers of which were barely known at the time of Becky's murder, the LAPD now has a "cold hit" on a petty criminal named Roland Mackey; his blood is on the gun that killed her. The trail that begins there soon leads Bosch and Rider into the seedy subculture of skinheads and other hate groups, a lead they follow intently because Becky's mother is white and her father is black: Could her murder have been a racially motivated hate crime?

To get the answer, read "The Closers." It's terrific, rich not just in suspense (at which Connelly has no superiors) but in the warp and woof of police work, of police bureaucracy, of Los Angeles itself. Every character is convincing, in particular the loathsome Deputy Chief Irvin Irving. If you've been following the Bosch novels, you'll want to see what happens to him at the end of "The Closers." Read on.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company