Creating Harry Bosch and Renée Ballard

Crime novelist Michael Connelly discusses the fictional universe of LAPD detectives he continues to chronicle in The Dark Hours, the California Book Club selection for April.

michael connelly
Dustin Snipes

Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles comes into clearest focus at night. By day, it’s a hot, bureaucratic, oddball city, ribboned with sluggish highways, rife with innumerable overlapping little hustles both nefarious and benign.

But at night: that’s when Harry Bosch, Connelly’s signature character since 1992’s The Black Echo, can stand at the window of his cantilevered house in the hills above the Cahuenga Pass and see the city as it lies outspread beneath his gaze, glittering, geometric, and vast. To Bosch—a valiant but abrasive loner on the LAPD, scarred by violence—it seems filled with both malevolence and beauty, an endlessly self-renewing mystery.

It makes sense, then, that when Connelly was creating a new fictional detective a few years ago, he assigned her Bosch’s natural habitat, L.A. at night. Or, as the detective, Renée Ballard, calls it, the late show.

“I write in real time,” Connelly told me over lunch recently. “So Bosch ages. I said twice in the early books that he was born in 1950, not knowing I would have this longevity. I had to think about how to realistically keep him going, which has always been my priority.”

The result was Ballard, another loner in the LAPD. She works the midnight watch and, in three of the novels that Connelly has written about her, has called upon Bosch in his retirement for help. In The Dark Hours, which critics have lauded as one of his finest books, she catches the first murder of 2021, committed at a New Year’s Eve block party, and discovers it has a connection to one of Bosch’s old cases.

Connelly is 65. We met at Birds on Franklin Avenue, instantly recognizable with its orange awning and low-key vibe. With his close-cropped white hair and goatee, he looks a little like a Roman senator thrust into wire-rimmed glasses; his personality is quiet and wry, methodical, unpretentious. Even after selling 80 million books, he sounds most like a crime reporter, as he was for seven years at the Los Angeles Times.

The job gave him contacts in the police force that sustain his writing to this day. Ballard is based in part on Mitzi Roberts, who herself used the overnight shift as a way to crack the glass ceiling into the ranks of LAPD detectives. (She now runs the cold case department, which is its own tale—short on people, she enlisted eight volunteers, “mostly ex-LAPD, one ex-prosecutor,” according to Connelly, much in the way Ballard deploys Bosch.)

“Ballard is an exaggeration of Mitzi’s personality,” said Connelly. He introduced Ballard in 2017’s The Late Show, a young cop isolated on the force because she’d reported a superior for sexual harassment, living on the beach so she can surf. “Mitzi would finish her midnight shift and go surf. She vetted the draft of The Late Show and said, ‘You gotta have a dog—when I would surf, my dog would stay with my stuff.’ ​” Connelly added a dog.

He’s conscious that Ballard is similar to the driven and cutting Bosch (familiar to an all-new audience nowadays because of the wildly successful Amazon series Bosch, which recently finished its seventh and final season). “I like to write about people different than me,” he said, considering these self-sufficient leads. Connelly grew up in a large family, first in Philadelphia and then in Florida, where his career as a reporter began. But it was in Los Angeles that he found his subject. He’s a devotee of the city’s cop eateries, bars, and dives, which pop up in his novels as frequently as jazz, from the Musso and Frank Grill to Birds itself: “They went up to that place on Franklin where the chicken’s so good,” a character says in The Dark Hours, and Ballard immediately knows the spot. At our lunch, Connelly ordered the rotisserie chicken, with baked beans and coleslaw on the side.

Birds also gives a discount to cops in Connelly’s universe, and while Connelly is clear-eyed in his books about the LAPD’s abuses of power—in politics, he leans far left of the Blue Lives Matter crowd—he’s nevertheless loyal to at least a select number of police officers who have become friends. “Nowadays, they’re viewed with jaundice,” he said. In The Dark Hours, there’s a lot of angry chatter at the station about the notion of defunding the police. “But I gravitate towards people with a sense of mission. That’s who I like to write about.” He paused, then acknowledged, “It’s more rare than common.”

Connelly has a singular gift for plotting. He still husbands his facts with reportorial care, and the fierce procedural logic with which both Bosch and Ballard follow clues is what makes his books so irresistibly readable. But L.A. is the canvas, he says. “It’s a rich canvas,” he told me, gesturing around. “Bosch has lived here his whole life. I could walk to his house.”

I asked where it was. “Well, there’s no house there,” he said. “When I was a reporter, I was sent there. There was a woman found murdered in the hills, right in front of the painter David Hockney’s house. In Nichols Canyon. I knew I wanted Bosch to have a view of the city, and while I was up there, I found this very small spot that had a decent view. A house had burned down, and there was danger tape up. I went under it and chose that spot.”

Connelly himself lives a less eventful life than either Ballard or Bosch—recently, he and his wife have been binge-watching the show Cheer, about rival cheerleading squads in Texas—but for a moment, recalling the long-ago case, he resembled his searching detective Bosch, forever haunted by cases emerging into his consciousness from the past.

“The victim was a nurse,” he said, “working up at this estate at the end of Monmouth. She left at 7 a.m. and saw someone lying in the street. She tried to help him, and he rolled over and shot her.” The story seemed to sum up so much about Connelly’s Los Angeles, with its intersecting threads of tragedy, celebrity, and money. He squinted into the bright distance, as if assessing the city’s unique ambiguities for the 10,000th time. “It was an ex-boyfriend,” he added, after a moment. “An ex-cop.”•

Join us on April 21 at 5 p.m., when Connelly will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest to discuss The Dark Hours. Be sure to visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book with your fellow California Book Club members. Register for the event here.

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