The Concrete Blonde - Michael Connelly

~~Moved from GR~~

The Concrete Blonde

by Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch #3)


Wow. Just wow.
The story centers around a previous case of Bosch's, the one which got him booted out of the elite homicide squad and into Hollywood. Bosch was on the case of the Dollmaker, a serial killer who hunted, raped, and murdered prostitutes, then dehumanized them by painting their faces with makeup. Bosch shot and killed a man who he thought was resisting arrest and reaching for a gun. Evidence that this man was the serial killer was subsequently discovered--as was the fact that the man's object when disobeying police orders, far from a gun, was his toupee. Years later, the man's widow is now suing Bosch. At the same time, evidence is emerging that either the Dollmaker had a copycat or Bosch killed the wrong man. Alternating between being interrogated in court for his past actions and searching for this new appearance of the killer, Bosch is forced to consider whether his violence is justified or whether hunting the monsters has so warped his viewpoint that all he can see is the monster in those around him. As the prosecutor asks,

"If the system turns away from the abuses inflicted on the guilty, then who can be next but the innocents?"

During the story, one of the characters quotes Nietzche: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” All of the stories in the series have explored this theme. What makes the internal investigations officer become an instrument of corruption? How does the drug task force cop become a dealer? Why does the Ad Vice cop become the sexual predator he is supposed to hunt? In this book, Bosch is confronted with how easy it is to fall into darkness--how easy it is for a man who hunts monsters to become one. It is a poignant and powerful story and leaves one with questions far after the last page is reached.
The book also explicitly deals with society's treatment of women. It points out the way the prostitutes are dehumanized, even how names like "the Dollmaker" infantilize and dehumanize the victims. Connelly points out how anger at women in power always seems to fall into sexual insults. They are called bitches and whores, and the men they dominate intellectually tell themselves and others that they gained the power by "f*cking a man in power". The book discusses how rape, how reducing women to sexual objects, is about humiliation and dominance. Yet throughout the series, Bosch and Connelly themselves are complicit in using sexually charged, female-humiliating language. I can't decide if it is intentional or not, but it certainly got me to thinking about how often the language for humiliation is the language of rape. For example, IAD officials who go after a detective have a "hard-on" for him, a phrase I have found repulsive and distasteful in previous books. Bosch declares that (emphasis mine) "we're going to nail this son of a bitch." (Ever hear anyone use the phrase, "son of a womanizer"?) Another conversation:

"'You f*ck!...I'm in that courtroom getting f*cked in the ass and I find out you're the guy' [...]

'I'm sorry. She screwed me too. It was like blackmail. I couldn't--I tried to get out of it but she had me by the shorthairs.'"

The language of rape here is so explicit, so repetitive, that it made me realize how common this language is in our culture, especially in male-dominated fields. I didn't even realize how often I use them.

The book's focus is on ethics rather than action, but the prose still has the tight journalistic style that makes it a fast and easy read. I like this style, although it leaves some of the characterization very sparse; for example, after three books of the character, I still don't know whether "98" Pound's nickname was given sarcastically. Connelly's dialogue is still a little problematic: although more natural than in the first book, all characters have very similar voices and use similar intonation and expression. Oddly, for a book that so clearly "gets it" in terms of rape and rape language, the book's predominantly male cast is rather disappointing. For a story dealing with the theme of humiliation of women, dominance of women, confinement of women, there are very few women in the story; only two of any significance: the cold, clinical, and extremely successful lawyer, Honey Chandler, and Harry's gentle, damsel-in-distress style girlfriend, Sylvia. But for all these minor defects, the questions asked are troubling and relevant. To hunt the monsters, must one become one? Has Bosch crossed that invisible line that divides the monsters from the heroes? Does the line even exist?

This book also comes at the right time in the series. At this point, after two books seeing him in action, seeing him both cruel and kind, I like Bosch. I empathize with him. But now we see Bosch on the defensive, hammered (see, the language so automatic that I'm doing it) by a defence attorney who links his own troubled past, including the murder of his mother, to his own actions. Like Bosch himself, I began to wonder where the line can be drawn between the monster and the man who hunts them. There's this really powerful, sickening moment where Bosch, confronted with his own actions and his own reactions, is unashamed and says the man got what was coming to him. Like me, the jury is sickened. And Bosch simply doesn't understand why they have this reaction. Bosch's agony is twofold. Even if the man Bosch killed was guilty, he was not given the opportunity to face justice. As the attorney says,

"You say he deserved what he got. When were you appointed judge, jury, and executioner?"

Bosch believes in justice, but he doesn't even trust the system that he is a pert of. He makes his own deals, hands out his own sentences. It's a troubling moral question. What happens when the system is broken? But how can we have a world when each person executes their own justice? I think I tend to love books which ask who watches the watchers. It's a question we deal with every day as we fight against the traits we fear and hate in ourselves. To echo Nietzche again, “Is it better to out-monster the monster or to be quietly devoured?”

It's a book full of questions with no easy answers. In the end, Bosch discovers that

"Nobody in this world is who they say they are, nobody. Not when they're in their own room with the door shut and locked. The best you can hope for is to know yourself. And sometimes, when you see your true self, you have to turn away."

Altogether, a powerful, powerful story.