Why I Write: Chasing Your Heroes

Author Michael Connelly reveals how a handgun hidden in the bushes led him to a life of crime writing.

michael connelly, california book club
Dustin Snipes

I write because of curiosity. I like to look into things, to understand them, and then to find a way to write about them in a crime novel.

It’s a curiosity that I’ve long held. Almost 50 years ago, it led me to a night in a police station that changed the course of my life and, well, brought me here. I had not committed a crime and was not suspected of committing one. I was a witness brought to a detective bureau. I was put in a chair and questioned extensively by a tough, no-nonsense detective who was trying to solve the shooting of a motorist by a man who had run off. I had found the gun used in the shooting.

This all took place in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where I grew up. I was 16 years old and working part-time as a dishwasher at a hotel on the beach. I worked late hours on the weekend, using the money I earned to put gas in the tank of the 1968 Beetle I’d bought the day after I’d gotten my driver’s license. On the night in question, I was driving home late and stopped at a traffic light. I glanced out the window to my left and saw a man running. He was not a jogger. He wore blue jeans and boots and a collared shirt. As I watched, he peeled off the shirt, revealing a T-shirt beneath. He wrapped the loose shirt around an object in his hand. He shoved the shirt and its contents into a hedge as he passed by it without breaking stride.

This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
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I got curious about that bundle. When the traffic signal went green, I made a U-turn and drove over to the hedge. I got out of the Beetle and went to take a look. I pulled out the bundle and felt its heft in my hands. When I unwrapped it, I was looking down at a handgun.

I wrapped it back up and put it back where I’d found it.

Before long, the blue lights of many police cars were flashing everywhere in the night. I had no idea what was going on, and I flagged one of the cars down and told them about the gun. I was soon transported to the police station, where I was placed in a chair next to a detective’s desk. The detective questioned me and then escorted me to a lineup room, where I viewed several groups of men brought in as suspects. I didn’t see the man who had stashed the gun. I identified no one. The detective was not pleased. Neither was I.

I felt like I had let him down.

Something about that night and the disappointed detective stayed with me. I started reading the crime news in the newspaper. From there, I read true-crime books and then crime fiction. It was in crime fiction that I found inspiration and art—books that were as much about the world and character as they were about solving a mystery. Though I had never been to Los Angeles, I was drawn to writers who had chronicled Southern California with their novels: Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Joseph Wambaugh. What Macdonald said about Chandler struck a deep chord in me: “Chandler wrote like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence.”

I was inspired. I started evolving a strategy: to read and reread the giants of crime fiction, get to Southern California, and learn how to write. It would be another 12 years before I set foot in Los Angeles for the first time and many more after that before I held my first novel in my hands.

I think you chase your heroes when you write. It’s where inspiration ultimately leads. Thirty years past that first novel, I feel I’m still in that chase.

That’s why I keep writing. •

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