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Detective Harry Bosch, out of his element but not out of his league

By Donna Rifkind
Monday, December 14, 2009

NINE DRAGONS

By Michael Connelly

Little, Brown. 374 pp. $27.99

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Michael Connelly's crime novels are so infused with Los Angeles atmosphere that some readers might have trouble imagining his key protagonist, Detective Harry Bosch, surviving for long in any other environment. In more than a dozen previous novels, Bosch has occasionally followed a case beyond L.A. -- to Mexico, say, or Las Vegas. But the City of Angels is where he begins and ends his work, searching every overlook and underpass in his single-minded mission to bring murderers to justice.

Bosch is feeling his age after more than 30 years spent working homicide, mostly for the LAPD, and now relies mostly on momentum. "I just want to keep moving," he insists throughout his latest case, which takes him from Los Angeles all the way to Hong Kong.

By sending the cop so far from his beat, is Connelly trying to shore up an aging series, to reinvigorate a worn-out hero? No and no. There's still plenty of juice in the older but fiercer Bosch. As the new novel begins, he's eagerly awaiting a new assignment at Homicide Special while losing patience with his young partner, Detective Ignacio Ferras, whose dedication to police work seems to be waning.

Faithful readers know that Hong Kong isn't a far-fetched destination for Bosch. In "Lost Light" (2003), he discovered he had a daughter named Madeline, who's now 13 and living in Hong Kong with her mother, an ex-FBI agent. Harry visits Maddie regularly and keeps in close touch via texting, video and e-mail on matching late-model cellphones that they bought together. (This capitulation to digital tech is a sure sign of paternal devotion: In the last Bosch novel, "The Overlook," famously old-fashioned Harry was dependent on his partner, Ignacio, to help him work a BlackBerry.) Bosch's latest case begins close to home, in a familiar South L.A. neighborhood. In fact, the victim is someone he knew. John Li was the 70-ish owner of Fortune Liquors, located just a few blocks from the epicenter of the 1992 riots. Bosch had been involved in a case on this gang-infested street 12 years ago and remembers the store and its proprietor well.

Now Li, a Chinese immigrant who stubbornly refused to relocate despite a slew of dangerous robberies and the urgings of his wife and grown children, has been shot dead behind the store's counter.

"Three in the chest was not personal. It was business," Bosch notes of this particular murder. But he doubts that his first suspect, a teenage shoplifter, was the shooter: "That would be too easy and there were things about the case that defied easy." Instead, with the help of a young detective from the Asian Gang Unit, he gathers clues suggesting that Li owed protection money to a Hong Kong triad, a criminal organization with origins in 17th-century China.

When Bosch gets a menacing call on his office phone warning him to back off the case, he's not especially fazed. But everything changes after he receives a cellphone video containing evidence that Maddie has been kidnapped in Hong Kong. Was there a leak within the various police departments involved in the investigation? And how can Bosch begin to penetrate the shadowy triad, whose lethal influence on both sides of the Pacific is now threatening his own daughter?

With no time to brood, Harry jumps on a plane and counts on pure momentum to propel him through a frantic 39-hour "day" in which he races through Hong Kong and its environs to try to rescue Maddie. But that momentum, while crucial, comes with a price: In his adrenaline-charged pursuit, Bosch puts lives in jeopardy and leaves a trail of blood behind him when he returns to Los Angeles.

Connelly has taken his hero into unfamiliar territory in more ways than one. Bosch's dash through an intensely atmospheric foreign city -- teeming, incomprehensibly chaotic, dense with smoke from the rites of an ancient festival -- is, for the first time, the duty of a terrified parent as well as a professional detective. Forced to give up any pretense of bulletproof independence, from now on the lone-wolf cop "would be forever connected to the world in the way only a father knew."

It's tempting to look at Connelly's large oeuvre -- which includes novels starring two other engaging protagonists, lawyer Mickey Haller and journalist Jack McEvoy -- as one huge, Trollopean vision of the way we live now, offering a swift, up-to-the-minute mosaic of contemporary urban life by exploring every corner of the criminal justice system, from ganglands to gated communities, from office cubicles to forensic labs, from boom times to recessions. "Nine Dragons" continues to broaden that vision through Bosch's eyes with an installment that's at once more global and more intimate than anything Connelly has published since his first novel, "The Black Echo" (1992).

Rifkind is a reviewer who lives in the Los Angeles area.

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