It’s the primal scene of American hard-boiled detective fiction: A private investigator, resentfully dressed up in his best suit, drives up to an old man’s imposing mansion. It turns out the patriarch is ailing, but before he shuffles off this mortal coil, he wants to set some troublesome family affairs in order. That’s where our detective comes in. Before the case is closed, skeletons of the past will tumble out of closets, the corrosive effects of wealth will be reaffirmed, and somebody will be sleeping the big sleep.
If any novelist is worthy to walk once more through the front door of Raymond Chandler’s iconic Sternwood mansion, it’s Michael Connelly. For over two decades, Connelly has been brilliantly updating and enlarging the possibilities of the classic L.A. hard-boiled novel, first bestowed upon the world in 1939 with Chandler’s debut, “The Big Sleep.”
The title of Connelly’s latest novel featuring (now retired) LAPD detective Harry Bosch even sounds like a Chandler title: “The Wrong Side of Goodbye.” Still, although this book, like many of Connelly’s novels, begins with an air of homage, it’s more than a Chandler impersonation. This latest Bosch outing is its own accomplishment: brooding and intricate, suspenseful and sad. In short, it’s another terrific Michael Connelly mystery.
Back to that mansion and the reclusive fat cat, Whitney Vance, who owns it. Vance has summoned Bosch, who’s now working as a private eye (after being forced into retirement by bullying bureaucrats at the LAPD) to investigate an enigma: “I want you to find someone for me,” Vance tells Harry. “Someone who might never have existed.” Vance then explains that when he was in college, he met a teenage Mexican girl named Vibiana who was working in the school cafeteria. They fell in love and she got pregnant, but after Vance’s enraged father offered to “take care of it,” Vibiana vanished. Now, Vance, who remained single all his life, wants to find out whether Vibiana had the child and, thus, provided him with an heir — and possibly a “spare” or two, if any grandchildren and great-grandchildren exist.
The clues are as faint as ant scent trails. Vance can identify the neighborhood where Vibiana and her parents lived in the early 1950s and that’s about it. Before Bosch departs, Vance warns him that other entities (such as the board of directors of his megabucks empire) may also be interested in hunting down his hypothetical heirs. That warning turns out to err on the side of understatement.
Meanwhile, Harry has other assignments on his plate. Never content with simply sitting around and listening to his beloved jazz CDs, Bosch has taken a volunteer job as a reserve detective with the understaffed San Fernando Police Department. There, he’s working on a case called “Screen Cutter,” the nickname for a serial rapist who’s assaulted at least four women in the area. The masked attacker always enters the victim’s home via a rear door or window after cutting through the screen. Oddly, all the victims had been at the ovulation phase of their menstrual cycle when they were attacked, leading Harry and his fellow detective Bella Lourdes to surmise that the perp had been inside each of their homes earlier, sussing out kitchen calendars and birth control dispensers. As disturbing as that scenario is, the case becomes even more grotesque as Bosch and Lourdes close in on this monster.
Because Connelly is such a master of the genre, he casually sidesteps the usual narrative convention and does not intertwine these two plots. Instead, readers experience the stressful chaos of Harry’s overloaded and divided life: One minute he’s bending the rules and using law enforcement databases to check any listings for Vibiana; the next, he’s switching over to his department email to read through tips about the Screen Cutter. In between, he’s making phone calls to crime labs or trying to chase down leads, or texting his college student daughter, Maddie, to see whether she’s free for dinner.
Throughout this long series, Bosch has constantly been fighting police department higher-ups (this time around, his nemesis is an insecure captain in the San Fernando Police Department); he’s also constantly fighting the infamous L.A. traffic. For the Vance case, though, Bosch unexpectedly must travel back in time, to his own firsthand knowledge of military service in Vietnam. There’s an extraordinary passage in “The Wrong Side of Goodbye” where Bosch loses himself in a memory of the singer Connie Stevens, performing a Christmas show in 1969 for wounded servicemen (including the young Harry) on a hospital ship in the South China Sea. It’s a powerful moment of grace that stands in opposition to the evil about to unfold in the present time of the novel.
Like his hero, Connelly seems to possess the stamina of youth, as well as an unflagging zest for work. “The Wrong Side of Goodbye” is his 19th Bosch novel, and he’s also branched out into television, serving as executive producer of the TV series “Bosch.” Unlike Harry, Connelly doesn’t seem ready to cash in his 401(k) anytime soon — and for that readers should be grateful.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
By Michael Connelly
Little, Brown. 388 pp. $29.