In classic hard-boiled fiction of the distant past, the era that brought us Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, women are often cast as victims or femmes fatales. Private detectives are lonely tough guys, hypermasculine, unwilling or unable to show emotion. At the end of hard-boiled crime fiction and procedurals, as opposed to noir, order is restored. What happens, however, when there is no femme fatale, when the tough guy is, in fact, a tough woman potentially at odds with the hypermasculine police force in which she operates? Meet Renée Ballard.
It’s Ballard’s story we read in renowned author Michael Connelly’s The Dark Hours, the California Book Club pick for April. Told from the third-person perspective of a maverick female LAPD detective, this book is one of Connelly’s 36 page-turners and his fourth Ballard novel. Like his other procedurals, the book draws realistic detail from Connelly’s tenure as a Los Angeles Times crime reporter, covering detectives who worked the homicide beat. In this one, Ballard is investigating the Midnight Men, tag team rapists who assault unsuspecting women in their beds on holidays.
While the book also features Connelly’s jazz-listening detective Harry Bosch, who hews a bit more closely to what we think of when we think of Spade or Marlowe, he’s playing backup here, as the only person Ballard trusts. As Connelly depicts her in The Dark Hours, Ballard meets the personality criteria for the classic hard-boiled detective—she’s fierce and smart and determined, not sentimental in the slightest—and like some of those detectives of yesteryear, she has complexity of heart and a personal code of honor that we see right off the bat.
Working the midnight shift with Detective Lisa Moore, another woman on the LAPD force, Ballard, who has been unhoused, sees the possibility of herself in homeless people sheltering under an overpass. But Moore, meanwhile, has protected her heart from the steady brutality of sexual assault cases and, hardened, perceives the refuge of the homeless as a blight, announcing, “It’s so third world. People are going to start leaving the city because of this.” Ballard’s ability to recognize that homeless people are people differentiates her from Moore but does not make her any less tough than Bosch.
We see it in the book’s first pages as Ballard’s conviction contrasts with Moore’s callousness, along with the apathy of other officers, and as her investigation into the Midnight Men progresses. When she tells a son grieving his father to be strong for his mother and sisters, his face contorts “as though telling him to be strong had kicked his strength out from beneath him.” While, procedurally, she’s forceful in her interrogation of him and sharp in getting him to let her fingerprint him, as any good detective would be, the sudden glancing gesture of sympathy proves more than a simply resourceful approach might have been. This doesn’t feel neat or maudlin; it’s a complication. Ballard’s cognition on the page is a grounded portrait of a woman trying to make her way in an aggressive, male-dominated profession.
The LAPD, as Connelly portrays it, hasn’t caught up with the altered public perception of the police or the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its officers, some of whom are too macho to wear masks, dislike Ballard for trying to make them do more for victims. But Ballard is driven not only by a desire to put away rapists, but also by a deeper, more nebulous quest that causes her to cross lines—the “solve” she needs “to save herself.”
Where can having both drive and a heart take Ballard in her investigation of brutal sex crimes on an apathetic and demoralized police force? This is the question that propels the procedural—and us—forward.•
Connelly will join the California Book Club on April 21 at 5 p.m. Pacific time to discuss The Dark Hours with host John Freeman and a special guest. Join us in the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book and let us know what you think! Register here for the event.
Victoria Kastner writes about a resilient and formidable California-born architect in Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect. —Alta
Finalists were announced for this year’s California Book Awards. Authors whose books are finalists include Shruti Swamy, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Tongo Eisen-Martin. —Commonwealth Club
On May 6, Bosch returns in a spin-off series, Bosch: Legacy, in which Titus Welliver will reprise his role as the eponymous detective. —Tampa Bay Times
Authors who grew up in California, including the late Anthony Veasna So (Afterparties) and Jeremy Atherton Lin (Gay Bar), were among the recipients of the National Book Critics Circle Awards for publishing year 2021. —Los Angeles Times
The authors appearing at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books were announced. Presidential inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, singer Janelle Monáe, and actor Billy Porter are among those who will be on the main stage. —Los Angeles Times
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