Driving in ‘The Dark Hours’

In Michael Connelly’s Renée Ballard–Harry Bosch novel, the experience of living in Los Angeles is inextricable from car culture.

los angeles, night, traffic

A city on the verge of greatness. A new type of city, based not on the man but on the automobile. The car—the symbol of freedom and vitality.”

These are the first spoken lines of L.A. Noire, a video game developed by Team Bondi and Rockstar Games and released in 2011. The opening section of the game peers around Los Angeles as it was in 1947, showing off landmarks like the vintage Hollywoodland sign, the tiled pyramid topping the Central Library, and the art deco fixtures on the exterior of the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. The game depicts and narrates the city’s sprawl: Both the writing and the visuals emphasize the abundant space in L.A. Endless opportunity to build and grow—endless room for freeways and driveways.

This game tells the story of a detective in the Los Angeles Police Department in the late 1940s, which places it squarely in the noir genre. Detective Cole Phelps moves through five bureaus during the lengthy game, solving serious crimes from arson to murder. L.A. Noire is an open-world game, meaning that play time is dozens of hours and it’s a somewhat self-directed experience. The game’s enormous map corresponds to present-day Los Angeles. Phelps spends a good deal of time driving a car from one (accurately depicted) place to another. The time the player, as Phelps, spends driving reemphasizes the message of the game’s opening sentences: this is a city made for cars.

L.A. Noire came out 13 months before I moved to Los Angeles. After just a few weeks in my new home, I realized that driving in the game resembles driving in real, modern-day L.A. to an astonishing degree. The streets are wide, long, and straight, and the sun always shines. The feeling of speed is elusive and highly variable. Bondi and Rockstar captured the inimitable sensation that time hangs pleasantly suspended as the road stretches far, far ahead, that nowhere you go is close enough to walk.

Strongly emphasizing cars and driving transforms a story merely set in Los Angeles into a story that lives in Los Angeles. L.A. Noire’s story lives in its city in exactly this way, as do some films and television shows: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, with Brad Pitt’s easy, wandering manner in his boss’s gigantic Cadillac; Sunset Boulevard, with its emphasis on the symbolic power of Joe Gillis’s repossessed Plymouth and Norma Desmond’s impossible Isotta Fraschini; and even the Saturday Night Live sketch “The Californians,” in which all conversations return to the highways and shortcuts the characters take to get where they’re going. (It’s funny but not inaccurate.)

The Dark Hours, Michael Connelly’s latest Renée Ballard–Harry Bosch novel, does this work well too. It opens with Ballard and her partner sitting in a police prowler under a freeway overpass, and the first murder in the book takes place at an auto body shop. Cars are mentioned in most of the book’s chapters, whether because the evidence or police equipment in them helps an investigation, because conversations between officers occur in the parking garage where they begin and end their workdays, or simply because car travel is necessary if you’ve got anywhere to go in L.A. Driving is inescapable enough that the narration often calculates driving times: “Traffic had generally been cut in half during the pandemic, but the city at this hour was dead, and Ballard made it to the 10 east interchange in less than fifteen minutes.” Certain scenes rely on characters having their own cars, as when an officer and his informant strand Ballard without her car keys in an empty parking lot east of Malibu. If the book were set in New York City, Ballard might simply get on the subway and her friend Bosch, as a retired LAPD detective, might not own a car with which to give chase.

In one passage, Connelly points out the inevitability of seeing L.A. through a windshield:

It was said that anyone who wanted to know Los Angeles needed to drive Sunset Boulevard from Beginning to Beach. It was the route by which a traveler would come to know everything that is L.A.: its culture and glories as well as its many fissures and failings. Starting in downtown…the route took its travelers through Chinatown, Echo Park, Silver Lake, and Los Feliz before turning west and traversing Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Brentwood, and the Palisades, then finally hitting the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, its four lanes moved through poor neighborhoods and rich neighborhoods, by homeless camps and mansions, passing iconic institutions of entertainment and education, cult food and cult religion. It was the street of a hundred cities and yet it was all one city.

Los Angeles: fully understood only when seen from a moving automobile. Connelly expresses this with some grandeur, but he also understands, practically, that getting from here to there in anything but a car is massively inconvenient in this city. Ballard notes a few times that she has lived on the beach, in a tent, but she never once mentions taking public transportation. The repeated references in The Dark Hours to how much time it takes to get anywhere replicate how it feels to live by this rule, to build travel time meticulously into every daily schedule. Los Angeles did not merely embrace or popularize car culture; Los Angeles built itself around cars, literally and experientially.

The makers of L.A. Noire understood this, too. It’s why the game relies on cars and driving for narrative integrity. Connelly, creating his own open-world game across many Bosch and Ballard novels, does the same. Bondi and Rockstar ask the player to wield a controller for long stretches of driving on a sunny road, creating muscle memory similar to holding a steering wheel on any segment of modern-day Sunset Boulevard. Connelly’s book, by contrast, mostly takes place at night (in the dark hours), so the eternal sun of Los Angeles is not a star player. But driving is. And that makes it as realistic an L.A. novel as the reader could want. •

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.

Katharine Coldiron’s most recent book is Plan 9 from Outer Space.
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