The Black Echo - Michael Connelly

~~Moved from GR~~


The Black Echo

by Michael Connelly


When I picked this up, it had been a while since I read an honest-to-goodness, down-to-earth, straightforward police procedural/noir. Connelly's debut is very much a card-carrying member of the hardboiled/noir police detective novel, from the traumatized protagonist, to the ice-cold blonde love interest, organized crime, and antagonistic cops from "the system".  However, Connelly is one of those very rare writers who captures the pure voice of noir--the combination of stark prose and rich imagery; a vivid portrayal of a grey world.  For example:

“The setting sun burned the sky pink and orange in the same bright hues as surfers' bathing suits. It was beautiful deception, Bosch thought, as he drove north on the Hollywood Freeway to home. Sunsets did that here. Made you forget it was the smog that made their colors so brilliant, that behind every pretty picture there could be an ugly story.”

Harry Bosch (yes, his first name is Hieronymus, poor guy) came out of the Vietnam war with a significant amount of psychological baggage that he carried straight into his new work as a police officer on the murder squad. His intelligence and control helped him to rise through the ranks; his hostility towards authority and willingness to shoot first got him booted out of a prestigious position. The story's voice was somewhat unique for the genre. The story is told in the third person omnipresent and tends to describe peoples' perceptions rather than their conclusions. One thing kept jarring me as I read: our narrator refers to Harry Bosch alternately by first and last name, often sentence to sentence.  However, I think the narrative style works. Harry is typically taciturn, so we get most of the flashes of Harry's sardonic humor through the narrator's description of his perceptions. 

The power from the novel, for me, came from Connelly's authoritative voice on police procedure. Connelly himself had been a reporter on the crimes beat and presumably had gotten to know the ins and outs of the police business. He certainly seems very familiar with the small details, the various acronyms, and even the computer systems, and does a great job in bringing this to life. Of course, we also have the typical noir abnormalities--romantic relationships between partners being one example. In addition, it seems to me that IA (internal affairs) gets a hard rap in the literary world. I don't think I've ever encountered a book where is not portrayed as either corrupt or rigid to the point of insanity.

Bosch has the standard case related attraction/relationship, but it wasn't overdone and didn't detract from the story. This is, above all, a detective story, but I thought it did a great job of melding this with character development. I liked Bosch and several of his associates; descriptions tended to be bare, but good at creating a snapshot image, very much in a journalistic style.[1]  Bosch is also stone-faced, but with a great deal of passion and anger pent up underneath, and with a sarcastic, biting tone that Connelly doesn't seem to share. The story overall had a terse, colorful prose style that I really enjoyed. In addition, although there are some obvious parts of the mystery, there's what I thought was a nice twist at the end--it certainly "got me" at the same time as the protagonist. Altogether a very fun and very straightforward police procedural thriller.

Full Series Review:

After reading a good chunk of the series, I'd like to actually review the whole sequence of Bosch books, but there's not really a good place to do that. I guess here is as good as any.

Bosch, as a character, is rich and complex, and remains a strong draw for me throughout the series. I love the fact that he constantly sees his mistakes and evaluates his own error. However, I strongly dislike the fact that his character never develops and remains static throughout. Time and time again, Bosch sees how his self-righteous ruthless independence, his cowboy justice, can do irreparable harm to others. Yet he never changes. It is difficult to even comprehend how a man apparently so aware of his failures can continue to make the same mistakes time and time again.

The other element I find problematic is the side characters. Unlike any author I've ever come across[2], Connelly doesn't really develop a coterie of loyal sidekicks for his character. On the contrary, character immorality appears to follow a poisson process: the probability the character is secretly evil/immoral goes up exponentially with the number of times they've been somewhat positively portrayed. It leaves an odd, unsettling, and isolating feeling: you can never trust the side characters, because the next book, they'll probably end up as the murderers. In addition, Bosch's love interests never make it through more than a book before they are used up and thrown out. It makes the character base feel unstable, lacking the solidity of most other series I read.

Connelly spent about 12 years on the crime beat, so his description of the police world is thorough, accurate, and natural. It's one of the highlights of the books for me. At the same time, every single book I've read contains incredible corruption within the police department, yet Internal Affairs and similar are vilified. Defence attorneys are also portrayed as immoral and sleazy. This seems hypocritical to me. If the police system is truly so decadent, then there must be ways to watch the watchers. It always leaves me wondering what on earth IAD did to Connelly during his writing career.

What keeps bringing me back to these books is the underlying depth. In an interview, Connelly commented that he writes books to try to tease out answers to the questions and problems that plague his own spirit. Again and again, Connelly tackles Nietzsche'a question of how the hunter of monsters can himself become that which he fights. He also tackles the sensitive topic of race--from the perspective of a white man, yes, but from a man who realizes that he himself is ingrained in a racist culture. The troubling moments when we see Bosch facing his own subconscious racism are illuminating. There are no satisfying, complete answers to these questions, merely conflicting answers to their various facets. Connelly's exploration of these topics leave me ruminating on my own beliefs, prejudices, and choices. Overall, these deeper topics lend Connelly's books a power and depth that is rare in the noir genre.


[1] If you've ever seen the TV show Castle, Connelly is one of Castle's murder mystery poker buddies. On the show, he is very dry and phlegmatic; he's the "after writing my first novel I shut up and wrote 27 more" type. I kind of watched that episode to see Connelly, and I was actually very surprised at the difference in passion and demeanor between detective and author.

[2] When I wrote this, I had not yet encountered Kate Griffin, or, I suppose, Eric Kripke.