A New Knight-errant in Los Angeles

Michael Connelly’s novels revolutionized and reshaped the procedural genre. His latest, The Dark Hours, the California Book Club pick for April, goes further yet in reconfiguring the myth of the knight-errant.

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Without the myth of a knight-errant, hard-boiled crime fiction wouldn’t exist in America. In the 1920s, cities across the country were wild places, some nearly run by criminal gangs. Sometimes those gangs were the police. It took someone beyond the law to mythologize justice in these environs. Thus, in the pages of pulps, Raymond Chandler gave birth to Philip Marlowe, an amoral detective driven by mysterious reasons—as well as money—to solve crimes. He didn’t ride horses or wield a sword, as in the Arthurian legends. He drove an old gray Plymouth and smoked Camel cigarettes.

The image of a lone man, lurking in shadows, unpicking a crime, one interview at a time, was dynamite for early cinema, which was long on dialogue, short on setting, and treated the women as dames. This new genre also reinforced some growing American myths in a world spinning out of order. They were double-edged tales the country told itself, though. What happens, after all, when a knight-errant answers, truly, to no one? When he’s almost always a man? What you have then is not justice but a desperado. Occasionally, a vengeance killer. A punisher. Indeed, in the 1970s, San Francisco, the city of Chandler’s fellow crime writer Dashiell Hammett, became, briefly, the city of Dirty Harry. America became the nation of the war in Vietnam.

And so just as hard-boiled crime writing was created by the knight-errant myth, it would need to leave the unreconstructed myth behind or else run the risk of edging toward a spirit of punishment in post–civil rights America. Nearly unchecked power presents a powerful lure, the temptation to excuse oneself as righteous. Especially in a nation where the very most powerful man in the country could also, astonishingly, present himself as an outsider. It was a few years after Nixon gave his law-and-order speech to the nation—one echoed by the last president in 2020—that a young engineering student at the University of Florida went to see a Robert Altman film and caught the crime bug. It’s hard not to wonder if some of the charged atmosphere of that decade—its growing distrust of officialdom, the simultaneous real need for order—had struck him too. This sense that maybe a new knight-errant was required. The student, anyway, famously, was Michael Connelly, and it’d take him another decade and a half to write his own novel, but once he began, he’d revolutionize crime writing.

Connelly’s fictional universe is so narrow it is vast. His books unfold almost exclusively in Los Angeles, as seen primarily through the eyes of a detective, his lawyer half brother, and, more recently, a second, up-and-coming detective. Captured through their peripheral vision, through their night watches and through their daily interviews, decades of fictional Los Angeles life have flourished into the pages of Connelly’s books, often with the actual complexity of interactions in L.A. It is a city, yes, of bank robbers, serial killers, and drug gangs, but also an expansive metropolis of pain, of racial uprisings, of class yearnings, of people wanting to get unstuck from their station in life, sometimes succeeding, sometimes tragically failing.

The Los Angeles that emerges in Connelly’s pages is so many-sided that it has taken 36 novels to make a scratch at it. A still somewhat Podunk city that has exploded out of its container into a sprawling, heaving everything-o-polis. It’s a city, like all cities, stretched beyond its means, perforated, still, by criminal syndicates, from China, from Central America, and, of course, grown right in L.A. Murders there can emerge out of taxi medallion disputes, in the cold case files that date back to the Los Angeles uprising of 1992, during the performance of a mariachi band.

Our guide, our Virgil, into this landscape of light and dark has most of the time been the appropriately named Harry “Hieronymous” Bosch, a tunnel rat in Vietnam turned LAPD detective, exquisitely played by a hangdog-eyed Titus Welliver in the eponymous TV miniseries that ended in 2021. A loner, not good with love, living on a perch overlooking the city in a bought-with-movie-money house, percolated with his jazz and his strong coffee, Bosch is, in many ways, our century’s Marlowe: wearied by the murders and violence he has seen, he is equally determined to do right by the powerless. But he is different from Marlowe in one way.

The police procedural, the genre Connelly has so brilliantly made his own, teaching tens of millions of readers not just what codes are called over police radio, but what forms are filled out when officers return, does not proceed from detail. Detail is its Trojan horse for a greater realization: that we are all connected in city life. Every slip of paper, every rule that is described in a police procedural connects more people to more people, meaning its detective protagonist is often at the center of a huge web of city dwellers. Unlike Marlowe, the detective is not alone, solving a crime, but often has a large swath of Angelenos (or New Yorkers, or Romans) working alongside them—coroners, beat cops, social workers, restaurateurs, victims’ relatives, chauffeurs, people without housing.

This mapping serves more than a titillating or humiliating function in city life. Yes, a pornographer might have ties to the highest and mightiest, and a dead equestrian might have links to a murdered pawnshop owner, as they have in previous Connelly novels. But if fiction is to tell us not just where we lived but how and why, has there ever been a more finely designed capillary system for the network of human connection and knowledge than the reverse engineering of a crime?

Plying and perfecting this genre over 36 novels, Connelly has brought the knight-errant back into the fold, revealing that a person who seeks justice in a flawed, even corrupt system is perhaps as interesting as, or even more so, than the fantasy of someone seeking it alone, from the outside. He has begun, in the past decade, to put a woman in this leading role. And he has also demonstrated that sometimes an institution—like the police—will fight a crime just as it perpetrates it. A city—like Los Angeles—will create the conditions for a crime just as its people fight to undo them, or help the quest for justice for those who have suffered.

This type of moral complexity feels essential if the police procedural is going to make any kind of sense in a country riven by the death of George Floyd and thousands of other unarmed (mostly Black and brown) civilians at the hands of police. The Dark Hours is Connelly’s first novel to address life in the post-Floyd-murder, post-COVID era of America, and it begins, quite realistically, with two officers bunkered down under an overpass, sitting in their cruiser on New Year’s Eve, hoping to avoid the rain of lead that happens when guns are fired in the air after block parties.

The two officers in the car are Renée Ballard and her partner, Detective Lisa Moore, of the Hollywood Division Sexual Assault Unit. The two are working together to catch a pair of serial rapists who’ve struck twice already, but within several pages, the detectives have managed to shut their windows up against a homeless man asking for help (he has no mask) and beat back the crude jokes of two fellow male officers. So much for social change. Everyone feels exhausted and somewhat beleaguered, and Moore is more interested in getting home to her boyfriend than solving a case. Everything about the night has begun wrong, and it gets worse when a man enjoying a New Year’s display is shot in the back of the head, echoing the murder at the heart of Connelly’s 2014 novel, The Burning Room.

Ballard first emerged in Connelly’s world in the 2017 novel The Late Show, whose title is a nod to the overnight shift she works in Robbery-Homicide. By this time in Connelly’s series, Bosch has crossed one too many lines in the bureaucratic sand and been pushed into an early retirement. Tired, fueled by ghosts, he can be hard company, a crime-fiction cousin to Beckett’s Molloy. By contrast, Ballard, who is part Hawaiian, young, and full of energy, is a burst of narrative fresh air. In The Late Show, she catches not one but two cases in one night and proceeds to solve them both at the same time with a vigor that hadn’t been felt in a Bosch book in a long time.

The Dark Hours has a similar double-helix structure. It’s clear very quickly that the auto bodywork shop owner who is shot and killed on New Year’s Eve was murdered and the gun that was used to do it was connected to an old crime. Ballard begs her lieutenant for permission to proceed with the case, even though it’s not her territory and Moore has abandoned shift work to flee to Santa Barbara with her boyfriend. Almost simultaneously, the Midnight Men, as Moore and Ballard were calling their serial rapists, strike again, and Ballard is also chasing down leads over how this pair found yet another traumatized victim, this one well outside their geographic pattern.

The heart of The Dark Hours is not, as its title says, the night, per se, but the time of not knowing, when it’s unclear where either case is going and Ballard must press down on her wit, intuition, and gumshoe work to lead her back out onto the streets and into charged, often tense interactions with civilians, many of whom, understandably, distrust the police, are not eager to help them, and are reeling from forms of trauma that are only beginning. Connelly began as a journalist, and he has always excelled at scripting these interactions, at resisting the fantasy of law enforcement being treated like the cavalry. The Dark Hours does not go as far as it could to draw plot points from within Black Lives Matter and the protests that put record people on the street to resist the treatment of vulnerable people by the police. But it does something nearly as important: pushing Ballard, who can read to some as white, and Bosch, among others, into civilians who are uneasy around them, this book captures the precariousness of trust between a police force and the population of a city who, even if they want to defund it, still might need its help to solve murders.

The subtlety of these interview scenes is helped along by Connelly’s capacity to keep several registers going at the same time in The Dark Hours. Watching Connelly balance Ballard’s two cases against each other, pouring the momentum from one into the other and back again, is like watching a pianist separate melodies with each of their two hands. It’s beyond dexterous. In the best passages, wherein plot twists create parallel portraits of minor characters—like a manipulative ex-husband and a CI who crawls out of a life of crime by informing—the novel achieves a symphonic depth. What does it mean to scheme? This is a question that emerges in the language itself. When Ballard catches a break, she checks in with Bosch, who has begun to lob in help from the side. They decide to go “skeeing” past a person of interest’s house:

It meant doing a drive-by…taking a measure of him. Its origin was debated: One camp thought it derived from the word schematic, meaning getting the physical parameters of a suspect’s place of business or residence. Others said it was short for scheming—taking the first step in a plan to hit a house of criminal activity. Either way, Ballard did not have to translate for Bosch.
“I’ll go with you,” he said.
“You sure?” Ballard asked.
“I’m sure,” Bosch said. “I’ll grab a mask.”

Bosch and Ballard first met in Connelly’s 2018 novel, Dark Sacred Night. In The Dark Hours, their rapport is based on mutual respect, sacrifice, and Bosch’s willingness to be told, on occasion, that there are charming anachronisms, like having an old printer, and not-so-charming, even stupid ones, like not getting vaccinated. One of the novel’s best intra-detective moments occurs when Ballard refuses to be brushed off and simply drives Bosch over to a site where he can get his first shot.

As the novel progresses, the vulnerability the two detectives show each other leads to an even greater bond. It also means that the widened array of characters begins to narrow and the reader must start making, as ever, guesses about who was in on the scheme to defraud a hardworking auto body shop owner from his business. Who was helping the serial rapists case the houses or find the victims, who, at first, seem not to have been attacked according to a pattern.

In most of the Bosch novels, he has worked with another detective, and, in the past decade, he has often worked with other female detectives, rather than had them purely as love interests. In The Closers, he worked with Kiz Rider, who convinced the chief of police to allow Bosch back to work. In The Burning Room, he paired up with a rookie, Lucia Soto, as he faced the reality of his own retirement. Since Connelly has been writing, a whole new generation of younger writers—from Ivy Pochoda to Steph Cha—has reinvented the field, and Connelly pays them tribute by having their books appear as crucial sustenance to one of the assault victims.

With The Dark Hours, however, he has gone the furthest yet in reinterpreting the knight-errant tale. What if the city isn’t sure it needs a knight-errant anymore? What does that mean for a crime novel’s sense of justice? And more ably here, what if that knight comes with a supporting cast of men? This is a Renée Ballard novel first, even though Bosch is co-listed. Its action is seen through her eyes, her gambles, her fears, and her brilliant leaps of logic. Also: the many, many relationships across the department and across the city that she manages. Bosch mostly helps and is along for the ride. It’s a train he helped get started, but it’ll be Ballard’s role, and probably the writers Connelly name-checks, to keep it going, so that the world of Los Angeles doesn’t retreat into fantasy and the definition of justice keeps expanding to live up to Bosch’s own motto: “Everybody counts or nobody counts.”•

John Freeman is the host of the California Book Club.
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