Detective Harry Bosch of the LAPD (retired) has inherited a murder. Rather, he has been bequeathed a “murder book” from a deceased one-time mentor, John Jack Thompson, whom Harry greatly respected. He taught Harry skills unknown at the Police Academy.
“Among other things,’’ Michael Connelly writes in his new crime thriller, The Night Fire,
John Jack had taught Bosch how to read the tells of a liar in an interrogation room. John Jack always knew when someone was lying. He once told Bosch it took a liar to know a liar but never explained how he had come by that piece of wisdom.
The curious element in this story is why John Jack took the murder book from the LAPD files when he retired, and appears to have shown absolutely no interest in solving the 20-year-old cold case.
After midnight, on the shift known as The Late Show, Detective Renée Ballard is called to a death among the homeless. Apparently an accidental fire has destroyed a tent and a destitute man’s life.
Downtown, Harry’s half-brother, the relentlessly opportunistic “Lincoln Lawyer” himself, Mickey Haller, is mounting a defence of his client, whose DNA has been found on the victim, a former Californian judge. Harry, cast against type, is assisting his half-brother in the defence, much to the chagrin of his former colleagues in the Robbery Homicide Division of the Los Angeles Police.
These are the intriguing foundations of The Night Fire. It is the novel where Renée Ballard assumes the lead investigator role, backed up by Harry’s skilful analysis and deeply ingrained instincts.
Bosch once stood in awe of John Jack, but Ballard rarely stands in awe of Harry. She listens to him and is guided by him. However, on occasions, she resents his concern for her welfare, dismissing him as not being her father.
Connelly has been honest with Harry’s ageing. He is now walking with a cane after a knee operation, which means he pursues cases from his dining room table, with notes carefully ordered in appropriate piles.
He has lost none of his mental agility, but the days when he could throw an annoying LAPD lieutenant through a plate-glass window are long behind him.
On a recent visit to Sydney, the author was expansive about Harry Bosch’s genesis as a character. He is a composite of several detectives in the LAPD. On the crime beat for the Los Angeles Times, Connelly not only developed many friendships with serving homicide detectives, but also drew inspiration for his novels from street life.
Renée Ballard, on the other hand, is based heavily on Detective Mitzi Roberts of the LAPD and it is clear that Ballard is now going to assume the point position in future Bosch/Ballard novels.
In The Night Fire, Ballard continues in exile after midnight. Her persecutor, Robert Olivas, is now a captain. All too often, this reflects an institutional response to complaints about sexual harassment.
The predator is promoted. The victim is exiled … to Hollywood: “Hollywood was a different place in the dark hours, after the neon and glitter had dimmed.
“Ballard saw the change every night. It became a place of predators and prey and nothing in between, a place where the haves were comfortably and safely behind their locked doors and the have-nots freely roamed.”
But Ballard is a straight, tough cop. She confronts the worst in the suicide of a child. She exercises judgment in making arrests after a domestic violence incident because she knows the situation will deteriorate further.
One of Connelly’s great strengths is to draw a vivid contrast between the extremes that exist in LA cheek by jowl. The cold case originates in an alleyway behind Melrose Avenue. The glamour and the glow of Melrose is a mere block away from the grime and grit of the alley, run by drug gangs.
Connelly continues to work as executive producer of the sixth series of the TV series Bosch, with Titus Welliver, to whom The Night Fire is dedicated, having come to own the title role. Amazon is asking for a seventh series, which means Harry Bosch may challenge Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe as being the ultimate protagonist in LA crime noir.
Like Chandler, whom legend has it wrote The Big Sleep in a booth at Musso & Frank’s on Hollywood Boulevard, Connelly likes to mention real places in the narrative, such as the Cajun eatery The Little Jewel in Chinatown or Dulan’s on Crenshaw Boulevard.
He normally edits his drafts twice before submitting to his publisher. The Night Fire shows the benefit of this focus and discipline. The writing is taut, the narrative is gripping and the tension builds incrementally.
Connelly’s villains are not the cardboard cut-outs of Jack Webb’s 1950s TV series Dragnet.
Entertaining they may have been, but nowhere as disturbing as a murderous criminal whose violence stains the city and confronts the police.
Harry has never wavered in such confrontations, and neither does Renée Ballard. Connelly’s lawless characters are credible, convincing in their malice and crying out to be brought down.
The Night Fire is superb. It is another compelling chapter in the defence of the assertion that every victim matters, driven by a professional fire within Harry Bosch that is continued by Renée Ballard.
The Night Fire
By Michael Connelly.
Allen & Unwin, 416pp.