Reviews

THE CLOSERS (Harry Bosch #11), by Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch’s return to the LAPD, after a three-years hiatus in which he tried to reinvent himself as a private investigator, marks Michael Connelly’s return to third-person narrative, which had been shifted to first-person in the previous two books, as if to mark the similarity between Bosch’s new chosen profession and the classic noir narrative of the solitary P.I.  The switchback does not affect the reader’s immersion in the story, of course, although I’m still curious about the author’s choice and wondering if it was an experiment he then decided to abandon.

Harry is back to his old stomping ground, armed once again with the badge that will allow him to open doors and be as effective as humanly possible in seeking justice for the victims: enrolled in the refurbished cold cases department, now renamed Open Unsolved Unit, he teams up with his old partner Kizmin Rider as the two are assigned a case from 1988, that of the murder of sixteen-year old Rebecca Verloren, who was abducted from her home and then killed. The murder had been mismanaged from the start, initially mistaken as a runaway case, and then as suicide: once forensic evidence pointed to murder, too many of the vital clues had been lost, making it impossible to find a perpetrator.  Now the analysis of DNA evidence (much improved since then) seems to point to a small-time felon who used to live near Rebecca: Bosch and Rider will have to review what evidence survived the passing of time and find a way to connect the pieces into a viable picture.  The passage of time will not be the only obstacle they will encounter on their path, since resistance from inside the police department and some ever-present political maneuvering threaten to crush their efforts, and to nip Bosch’s new career in the bud as the figure of former Chief of police Irving looms quite large on the horizon…

The transformation of Harry Bosch from the “loose cannon” he used to be into a more thoughtful, more sedate detective continues in this 11th novel of the series, and apart from the fact that this change is appropriate – since no individual remains the same throughout their life – it also marks the passing of time and the differences in outlook that experience (and hopefully wisdom) can visit on people. There are some moments in which the “old” Harry seems to surface, the one who preferred to cut corners and defy the system to bring justice to the victims, but here he appears more inclined to listen to his better angels and, more importantly, to his partner’s cooler advice.  One of the elements I more appreciated in this book is the working relationship between Bosch and Rider, one that comes from mutual respect and the appreciation of one another’s strengths. 

He was back on the job with her less than a day and they had already dropped back into the easy rhythm of their prior partnership. He was happy.

Kiz Rider’s character is a skillful blend of hard-won competence and innate empathy, all rolled into a no-nonsense person who is not afraid of calling out her former mentor on his flaws, or warning him that he might jeopardize both the investigation and their careers with his unorthodox choices.  The “old” Harry might have scoffed at such warnings and kept going, the “new” one not only listens, but has the honesty of admitting his faults and attempting to correct them: the two of them complement each other very well, and I hope that Michael Connelly will let us have more of this successful investigative duo in the next books, because I enjoyed it quite a bit.

As far as the story itself goes, it’s less “adventurous” than the previous ones, given that it follows the investigation as Bosch and Rider start back from scratch, collecting all the surviving evidence and trying to gather any new detail that might help them in finding the perpetrator, but I appreciated it all the same because I’m always fascinated by the mechanics of investigation, especially wherever forensic clues are concerned.  What truly stands out in The Closers is the depiction of a crime’s emotional fallout for the victim’s relatives, particularly when they are not afforded any form of closure: here we see how Rebecca’s parents never recovered from their child’s murder – the mother living in the same house and keeping her daughter’s room as she left it, a shrine to the memory of a life lost when its potential was still to be explored; the father falling into an abyss of despair and alcohol from which he’s trying to emerge in small, painful steps.  These parents’ anguish touches Bosch in quite a poignant way, which is hardly surprising because he’s a father now and, even though it remains unexpressed, the thought that he might lose his daughter to the cruelty of the world lurks just behind his awareness, lending him the drive to bring some form of justice to these bereaved parents.

The investigation, slow-paced as it is, moves unfailingly toward its resolution, one that proved quite surprising to me, and in so doing explores all the avenues offered by the few clues the detectives can work with: we see them research the possibilities of sex crime, and then of hate crime – which also affords a diversion into the murky world of racism and white supremacy – and once again opens a window into the multilayered aspects of a big city like Los Angeles, one that

[…] shimmered out there like a million dreams, not all of them good

And Bosch is certainly back to shine his own light on the pockets of darkness nesting among those bright dreams, he’s back in his true element and not the proverbial fish-out-of-water he felt like in the previous two books: on this respect, there is a very enlightening passage in which he tells Rider that he had noticed how he walked favoring one leg, only to become aware that he was unconsciously compensating for the lack of the service weapon at his side – not so much the gun in itself, but what it represented for his ability to respond to the unheard cries of the victims.  This new start in his life is exactly what he always wanted, and needed, to satisfy his drive for justice, and it feels like the start of new, intriguing chapter in this character’s journey.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE BOOK OF COLD CASES, by Simone St.James

When I encountered the synopsis for this novel I was immediately captivated by the story’s potential, and once I started reading I enjoyed the double-timeline, double perspective narrative, which managed to fuel the tension that runs throughout most of the book.

Shea Collins holds a run-of-the-mill job as a doctor’s receptionist by day, while at night she indulges her passion for unsolved crimes, managing a blog called The Book of Cold Cases, where she explores those crimes in well-researched detail. Shea’s keen interest might look somewhat obsessive on the outside, but the readers’ perspective changes once they discover that she survived a brutal assault in her childhood, one that left its mark on her and her ability to connect with strangers.   

The small town in which Shea lives is usually a quiet place, but forty years ago the community was shaken by the case of the Lady Killer: two men had been viciously murdered by a woman leaving cryptic messages on the scenes, and since rich heiress Beth Greer had been seen fleeing the area of one attack, she ended up being investigated for both murders. Worse still, the ballistic exam matched the bullets of both homicides with the ones that killed Beth’s father in his own home, a few years before the Lady Killer started her spree.

Lack of any incriminating evidence ultimately led to Beth’s acquittal, but the small town never forgot, and Beth’s detached, unconventional behavior never helped clear the suspicion hanging over her.

One day, Beth comes for a doctor’s appointment where Shea works, and once the younger woman recognizes the famous patient, she asks for an interview for her blog and – quite surprisingly – Beth agrees, starting a series of encounters between them that take place in the old Greer mansion, a place that seems frozen in time to a few decades prior, and where weird phenomena cast a creepy pall over an already uncomfortable setting.  As the meetings progress and the two women form a sort of bond (calling it ‘friendship’ would indeed stretch the truth), Shea understands that Beth is hiding something, maybe manipulating her for some mysterious reason, and at the same time, the flashbacks into Beth’s past show the evidence of a very unhappy family and one burdened by secrets and unspeakable truths…

The Book of Cold Cases started a bit slowly, and at times it lagged a little, but it never failed to keep me intrigued and compel me to get to the bottom of the mystery: the story is a very atmospheric one, in both temporal lines. The present, where Shea keeps pursuing her investigation with dogged determination, is dominated by the relationship between these two women who might appear quite different on the surface, but in reality have had to deal with traumatic events that have changed their perspective on the outside world. The past, where we learn about Beth’s previous life, blends her personal history (and that of her family) with the media’s intense focus on the murders and Beth’s alleged guilt: in this instance, particularly, one can see how public opinion can be influenced by circumstances to the point that they set themselves in the role of judge and jury. In the late ’70s – the time in which the murders occurred – a young woman, and a rich one, living alone and minding her own business was evidently too unconventional not to attract automatic suspicion and cast Beth in the role of murderer, and the “help” from the press, with the plethora of copies-selling misinformation bandied about, was certainly instrumental in establishing that image. 

The overall picture is indeed an engaging one, but in my opinion it was marred by two factors which spoiled my enjoyment a little: one is the supernatural component, which to me seems… pasted on, for want of a better word, and adds little or nothing to the tenseness of the story. True, the scary manifestations described in the book – the faucets that open on their own, the appearance of blood on the kitchen’s floor where Beth’s father was killed, and so on – add a chilling element to the story, but they are not fundamental in the solution of the mystery, nor do they truly serve to enhance the weirdness of Greer House, whose function as a portal to times past comes from the frozen quality of its decor and furnishings.  The other problem came for me from the too-early discovery of the killer’s identity: given the successful creation – up to that point – of a mood of suspense and mounting dread, this untimely revelation robbed the story of some of its momentum and left me a little disappointed.

Still, since the novel hinged on the interactions between Shea and Beth and the almost osmotic relationship established by their meetings, I found enough material in this novel to keep me engaged until the end, and – more important – to kindle my curiosity toward this author, whose other works I intend to explore in my next reading forays.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE NARROWS (Harry Bosch #10), by Michael Connelly

With book 10 in the Harry Bosch series I continue my exploration of the “uncharted lands” of this character, as opposed to what I’ve experienced so far in the seven seasons of the TV show inspired by it, which means that on top of the skilled storytelling I’ve come to expect from Michael Connelly I can now enjoy totally new investigations, an element that adds more spice to these engaging stories.

The Narrows starts with two apparently unrelated narrative threads:  one concerns the return of the serial killer protagonist of the novel The Poet, and of FBI agent Rachel Walling, who was far from convinced that her quarry had died in the final shootout that ended the chase; the other features Bosch as he’s contacted by the widow of former FBI agent Terry McCaleb (encountered in A Darkness More than Night), because she’s convinced that the heart attack that ended her husband’s life was far from a natural occurrence, and needs Bosch’s help to uncover the truth. 

As events unfold, it becomes clear that the two investigations are strictly linked, so that Bosch and Walling must combine their skills to catch the killer and end his reign of terror, while dealing with several obstacles on their path: Walling, who was sent to a dead-end assignment after the debacle with the Poet, is chafing under the restraints imposed by her role as a mere observer, and feels that the team leader is more preoccupied with the political implications of the chase, rather than with the success of the mission. Bosch, for his part, is even more keenly aware that without a badge many doors are closed to him, and the long-standing rivalry between law enforcement agencies is clipping his proverbial wings, leaving him with little room to maneuver. And on top of it all, he and Walling are both strong, determined people, and cooperation does not come too easy to either of them, reducing their field effectiveness when they really need it at full strength.

The Narrows is truly what many like to call a “page turner”, blending the chase for a dangerously intelligent serial killer with a fascinating collection of clues that paint the whole picture through a logical progression that nonetheless proves both exciting and distressing, thanks to the many red herrings that take characters and readers off track so that it’s almost impossible to predict what will come next. By now I’ve acquired enough familiarity with Michael Connelly’s “modus operandi” to know that I need to pay attention to the smallest detail he lays down, because sooner or later it will fit into the bigger picture, offering a deeper understanding of the story.   It’s worth mentioning how the narrative is split between the first person when the author deals with Harry Bosch (a trend initiated with the previous novel) and the third person with the other characters: it gives the story a very peculiar quality and at the same time is reminiscent of the classic noir novels where the P.I. protagonists (the role Harry is playing now) offered their point of view as a form of internal monologue.

The background – again the cities of Los Angeles and Las Vegas are front and center here – comes alive through the author’s descriptions and becomes another character of the story, enhancing it with a cinematic quality that alternates the glamorous and the gritty in a very balanced blend. The best example is offered by the titular Narrows, which is a man-made channel created to funnel the excess of rainwater and avoid the flooding of the city of Los Angeles. Bosch mentions it in passing:

[…] the river. Trapped between those walls. When I was a kid we called it ‘the narrows’. When it rains like this the water moves fast. It’s deadly. When it rains you stay away from the narrows.

offering a foreshadowing for future events that I found very intriguing – on hindsight.

Where the story is the frame, characters are its true substance: from the minor roles – like the unpleasantly entitled FBI team leader, or the other agents, or again McCaleb’s grieving widow and his partner in the boating operation – to the two protagonists, Bosch and Walling, everyone is clearly defined no matter how much page space they occupy, and in the case of these two we can see the evolution from the last time we met them.  Walling is disillusioned after her posting in a remote location where her investigative skills are hardly necessary, but she is far from beaten, and her determination in catching the Poet is quite admirable, even when she chooses to go against the rules: in this she is the perfect complement for Bosch, who never cared much for authority, so that I was delighted to observe these two unlikely “partners in crime” as they pursued the leads with little or no concern for the consequences.

As for Bosch, while he’s still the proverbial dog with a bone with every case that catches his attention, he’s a very different private person: discovering the existence of his 4-years old daughter changed his perspective on life, and even managed to soften him in his personal approach. The man who can relentlessly pursue bad guys is also able to sit down and read stories to his child, reveling in the joy of her closeness and the candor of her affection; the reality of this daughter whose existence he ignored until a short while ago forces him to consider his actions – and their consequences – for the long-range effects they might have.  Where Bosch used to be a loner, he now has a very important focus in his life, one that certainly informs his choices for the present and the future.

[…] the innocence of a child will bring you back and give the shield of joy with which to protect yourself.

Along with these changes in Bosch’s personal life, more might be forthcoming in his profession, thanks to the offer he receives to participate in a newly-formed division of the LAPD dealing with cold cases: the pull of these forgotten victims might be strong enough to make him go back to his old job, giving voice to those who cannot do it for themselves anymore. Once again, I can only look forward to what awaits me down the road with this very intriguing character.

My Rating:

Reviews

LOST LIGHT (Harry Bosch #9), by Michael Connelly

There is a number of changes in this ninth book from Connelly’s Harry Bosch series that mark a turning point from the past: the narrative surprisingly switches from the previously employed third person to first person, making the reader directly privy to Bosch’s inner thoughts; the former LAPD detective resigned from his job at the end of book 8 and now holds a P.I. license, but still has not taken any steps in that direction; for the first time since I began this series, the story was completely new to me, since it did not find its way into the TV show scripts, so I didn’t know what to expect; and at the end of this novel a major shift in Harry Bosch’s life comes to light – not a surprise for me, given my familiarity with the TV series, and one I was looking forward to, but certainly a huge one for the character. But I will get back to that in a while…

Harry is still adjusting to his new civilian status, taking life at a slower pace, free of the encumbrance of rules and regulations, but still – by his own admission – something is missing, and after a while he understands what it is:

I was living like a jazz musician waiting for a gig.

It does not take long for the former cop to know how to fill that void: if before his resignation his work as a detective felt like a mission, that has not changed now that he does not wear a badge anymore:

My mission remained intact. My job in this world, badge or no badge, was to stand for the dead.

And in this case the dead is Angella Benton, the victim of a crime Harry investigated a few years previously and which was never solved: the young woman was found murdered on her own doorstep, in what looked like a sex crime – Bosch is haunted by the image of the victim’s corpse, whose hands stretched away from the body as if in prayer, pleading for justice.  Angella worked in movie production and a couple of days after her murder the set where she was employed was the theater of the robbery of a huge sum of money that was never recovered: Bosch was on the location that day, collecting clues about the young woman’s murder, and was able to shoot one of the robbers, although they all managed to escape with the 2 millions in cash from the set.  Convinced that the two crimes are somehow connected, Bosch starts his own investigation and – unsurprisingly – ends up locking horns not just with the police department and their unhappiness at his meddling, but also with the FBI: the case does intersect with an investigation on terrorism (the book is set two years after 9/11, so the country is still on high alert after the attack) and the mysterious disappearance of an agent who was tangentially involved with the stolen money.

The main theme of Bosch’s new “mission” is indeed frustration: not just because of the now-cold trail of evidence, but mostly because his civilian status now bars many of the doors that once would have been wide open to him; this newfound freedom widens the range of his maneuverability, but also forces him to be more creative in situations where simply showing his badge would have granted unlimited access. This is particularly true in his dealings with the FBI: with the exception of his old acquaintance Roy Lindell (whom he met in Trunk Music), the other members of the Bureau view him with suspicion, or worse, offering to Michael Connelly the opportunity for thoughtful considerations on the “siege mentality” of those years and on the way some members of law enforcement stood on the thin line between their protective duty and a show of arrogant disregard for civilized rules.  As usual, the author abstains from any form of commentary, leaving to his readers the freedom to draw their own conclusions, which is a choice I always appreciate.

Back to Bosch, the present shift in perspective (and freedom of movement) offers the readers new facets of his personality together with a way to keep the character fresh and interesting: where he felt something of an outsider before – keeping to himself, often moving on different tracks – now heis indeed forced to be the loose cannon, paying the price for it with the lack of protection once afforded by the badge, and the subtle sense of insecurity that comes from it. Which does not however deter him from the mission, like a modern errant knight determined to right the wrongs he encounters on his path.  What’s interesting is that the counterpoint to this isolation is given by the number of faces from the past that come to the fore in the course of the story, almost a sort of reunion – or maybe a long goodbye to the past: besides the already mentioned Lindell there are the LA Times journalist Keisha Russel, former colleague and protegé Kizmin Rider and, last but certainly not least, Bosch’s ex wife Eleanor, for whom he still harbors deep feelings which enhance his core of loneliness.

There is an interesting thread concerning Rider here, because in more than one occasion Bosch is delighted to acknowledge he taught her well with something approaching paternal pride, a sentiment that on hindsight feels almost like foreshadowing because at the very end of the novel Harry discovers he is indeed a father when Eleanor introduces him to their four year old daughter Maddie. This was no surprise for me, given my familiarity with the televised story, and it was instead a development I was looking forward to because in the show the relationship between Bosch and his daughter – a teenager on screen – was one of my favorite features of the series.  

This fateful meeting, placed at the very end of the book, is both extremely poignant – we see Harry kneeling in front of the child as he holds her hands in amazed wonder – and also the high point of what I’ve come to see as a transitional book, one where changes in  his career and personal life meet to open a new path. Where that path will lead will be a discovery for both the characters and the readers: this particular reader cannot wait to see what’s in store in the next books, my only certainty being that I now fully trust Michael Connelly to always deliver an intriguing, engrossing and emotionally satisfying story with each new novel in this series.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE DARK CORNERS OF THE NIGHT (Unsub #3), by Meg Gardiner

This is my third foray into Meg Gardiner’s Unsub series, and the one which showcases its constant improvement both story- and character-wise.  My renewed interest in crime fiction can now rely on two excellent authors: Michael Connelly and Meg Gardiner.

In this new case, former detective and now FBI agent Caitlin Hendrix has been called to Los Angeles to investigate a series of brutal home invasions: the unsub (short for Unknown Subject) committing the crimes targets houses where families with children live, viciously kills the parents and terrorizes the children, often leaving crude messages or pictures of eyes on the walls.  The press has taken to call him the Midnight Man, because that’s the hour when he’s liable to strike, when everyone in the house is sleeping and therefore more defenseless.  As both the police and the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit struggle to pinpoint the identity and the personality of the killer – who is extremely careful not to leave clues or recognizable images on surveillance cameras – the Midnight Man makes his first mistake by attacking young Hannah’s house: the girl manages not only to give the alarm and therefore save her parents’ life, she is also able to offer some important information to the investigators, turning into a pivotal witness for law enforcement but also painting a target on her own back because the killer is deadly set in removing the danger, and the intolerable failure, she represents.

The Dark Corners of the Night turned out to be not only the most gripping novel in the series so far, but also one that affected me quite deeply in an unexpected way: while I was reading the book, I was awakened one night by a noise – with all probability one of the not-so-careful people living one floor above moving around with no consideration for  the late hour or their neighbors’ rest. At any other time I might simply have grumbled and tried to go back to sleep, but the power of the story I was reading was such that I had to take a tour of the apartment and check that the door was locked, even though I kept berating myself for such silliness: I’ve read a good number of thrillers, I’ve read horror stories, for pity’s sake, and I’ve never given any though to “monsters” lurking in the dark, but this time I did – that’s the extent of my emotional involvement with this book.

This novel is indeed a compulsive read that will keep you on the edge of your seat for most of the time: the descriptions of the killer’s incursions, the urgent search for any clue or piece of information that might lead to his capture, and the final, adrenaline-infused chase through the city, all combine to create a breathless atmosphere of suspense that will keep you enthralled from start to finish. Even the relatively quieter moments, when details are examined and we are made privy to the intriguing aspects of law enforcement procedures, feel like part of that pressing need to know what motivates this unsub, who he is and what can be done to find and stop his killing spree.  The greater attraction here comes from following the police and FBI’s steps in collating the evidence, slowly but surely piecing together the various elements of the puzzle: as readers we get the same information that law enforcements has and therefore we feel like we’re moving alongside them in this journey, with no privileged outlook that might lead us to get the whole picture before the characters. Plot-wise, this is my preferred method of exploring a story, because I love being surprised and discovering that any hunch I might have had was totally wrong.

Meg Gardiner’s novels don’t rely on plot alone, though, because she always manages to achieve a good balance between that and character development.  Caitlin Hendrix is of course the one under the brighter spotlight, and here we see how the search for the Midnight Man and his elusive trail ends up affecting her: while this book can be read as a stand-alone, it would be better to be aware of Caitlin’s difficult journey and the emotional scars from both her past, and the more recent events, to fully comprehend some of her reactions to the stress of the chase, particularly when she falls back to some compulsive habits that plagued her youth. Since fiction has accustomed us to see law enforcement officers as tough, unyielding individuals, we tend to forget they are human beings as well, and therefore subject to human frailties, which might sometimes reduce their field effectiveness but helps greatly in sympathizing with them and seeing them as people: this is the case with Caitlin’s flaws, which don’t demean her but instead offer a balanced counterpoint to her investigating skills.

Dark Corners also offers an intriguing character study with young Hannah: gifted with great courage and observational skills well beyond her years, she offers the intriguing portrait of a child who goes through some harrowing experiences but has the strength and presence of mind to fight against her fears and offer the police the means to apprehend the killer. I quite enjoyed the interactions between Hannah and Caitlin, with the latter probably seeing in the young girl a mirror of herself, of a victim who refuses to be relegated in that role and acts proactively with every means at her disposal.  On the opposite side of the spectrum there is the Midnight Man: as his profile becomes less hazy and we start to understand what makes him tick and what propelled him toward his killing spree, it’s impossible not to be chilled by the realization that there might be many like him living literally next door, and that it might take only a little shift in their precarious balance to tip them off toward such darkness.

As the novel neared its conclusion I was already mourning the fact that Caitlin’s story seemed to be headed toward a final wrap, because I have been enjoying these novels very much, but I was glad to discover that the final paragraphs hint toward new developments though the possible return of an old adversary, which means that a fourth book might very well be in the works as I write this. If that’s the case I am surely on board for more, and as I wait I can always explore some other works from Meg Gardiner who is – happily for me – a very prolific author.

My Rating:

Reviews

CITY OF BONES (Harry Bosch #8), by Michael Connelly

I was eager to reach this installment in Michael Connelly’s series because the story told in City of Bones constitutes the narrative core for the first season of the TV series, which made me finally aware of this author’s works and introduced me to a very intriguing character.  Unlike what happened with previous books, here both narrative paths (book and TV) follow the same progression, so there were no surprises for me story wise, and yet the novel was able to capture my attention from start to finish as if it were completely new – a further demonstration of Connelly’s narrative skills, not that I really needed it at this point…

It’s the first day of the new year, and – unsurprisingly – Harry Bosch is on duty when he’s called to the site of a grim discovery: the bones of a murdered child that have been lying in the ground for a long time, probably a couple of decades. Even worse than the murder of a child is the revelation that the poor kid had been the victim of prolonged abuse, as testified by the multiple healed fractures evident in the bones: nothing like this kind of innocent victim can drive Harry Bosch on an unstoppable quest to find the perpetrator, not even the awareness that the long time elapsed might turn into a fruitless search, at times hindered by the LAPD politics which don’t look too kindly on such an expenditure of time and resources for what looks like a very cold case.

But Bosch is quite determined to get to the bottom of this because this time it’s not just a matter of being faithful to his motto “everybody counts, or nobody counts”, which drives him to seek justice for those who don’t have a voice anymore; this time the case feels close and personal, touching on the hardships of his own childhood, spent between uncaring foster families and indifferent institutions after the murder of his own mother. Even though it’s never expressed openly, Bosch feels a kinship with young Arthur Delacroix, the victim, and also the need to avenge his stolen innocence. As he muses at some point:

Child cases haunted you. They hollowed you out and scarred you. There was no bulletproof vest thick enough to stop you from being pierced. Child cases left you knowing the world was full of lost light.

City of Bones is much more than a compelling police procedural, even though it’s a fascinatingly detailed one, because it turns out to be the book in which Bosch’s psychological makeup is explored in greater depth than before, showing how under the abrasive surface of his personality there is a very human individual who built that exterior armor of bluntness as a defense against the injuries of the world. The detective’s flaws are showcased here more than in previous books, often portraying him as fallible, since his single focus on the goal tends to make him ignore peripheral details that are later revealed in their importance, but it’s thanks to these flaws that the human being can be seen, and appreciated.

There are a couple of instances in which we see Bosch lowering his “shields” in this novel: one is focused on his relationship with Julia, a trainee officer who exposes him to the double dangers of letting down his defenses (and later paying the price) and of going against the department’s regulations concerning romantic attachments inside the force. Julia seems just as determined as he is in making a difference, but does so without the years-long experience that the older detective has acquired over time, and this costs her dearly, leaving Bosch saddled with an undefinable sense of guilt that weighs heavily on him.  The other instance concerns his exchanges with the forensic pathologist charged with the examination of young Arthur’s bones: there is a moment in which the doctor shows Bosch some bones recovered from the city’s tar pits, bones that reveal how murder was a component of society even in prehistoric times – the indication that human wickedness possesses deep roots indeed. Which brings Bosch to a bitter conclusion:

[…] a truth he had known for too long. That true evil could never be taken out of the world. At best he was wading into the dark waters of the abyss with two leaking buckets in his hands.

It’s a very sad consideration, and probably the start of the process leading to the unexpected decision Bosch makes at the end of the book: a decision that mirrors the one he takes at the end of the TV series, but for completely different reasons.  It’s possible that this choice comes from a number of factors, not least the depressing links between law enforcement and its political ramifications, which here also dovetail with media relationships and community awareness, creating a mix that the detective finds unpalatable and more constricting than ever.  This heavy equation is further burdened by the lack of complete closure in the case: yes, the murderer is finally apprehended but it looks almost like an afterthought, and this certainly does not bring any kind of comfort to the shattered and dysfunctional family of poor Arthur, or to Bosch himself.  The prospect of an incoming promotion leaves him cold and distant, almost in acknowledgment of the emptiness of the task he has dedicated himself to for so long: in the very moment we are allowed to see more clearly into the soul of this character, we are also led to what looks like a massive shift in his perspective and his life:

He had always known that the would be lost without his job and his badge and his mission. In that moment he came to realize that he could be just as lost with it all […] The very thing he thought he needed the most was the thing that drew the shroud of futility around him. He made a decision.

Even though I have an inkling about what that decision might be, I more than look forward to actually learning what it is, and to allow Michael Connelly to intrigue me once again with his stories centered on such a fascinating character. I know that I will not wait too long to get to the next book in line…

My Rating:

Reviews

THE LATE SHOW (Renée Ballard #01), by Michael Connelly

In my continuing exploration of Michael Connelly’s vast body of work I was intrigued by this book, whose main character is Detective Renée Ballard, and as I started to read I wondered whether she might end up being Harry Bosch’s successor: The Late Show was published in 2017, a good number of years after my latest Bosch book – 2001 – where the more famous detective is portrayed as middle aged, so it only stands to reason that, narratively speaking, as the years go by he might not be as active and energetic as in the stories I’m reading now, and a need for passing over his legacy might become unavoidable for his creator.  What’s interesting – and refreshing – here is that Ballard is not a female version of Bosch: of course she’s a dedicated investigator nurturing a strong sense of justice, but the similarities end here, and I’ve both enjoyed and welcomed Connelly’s decision to craft her character.

Renée Ballard is a LAPD detective who has been sent to the night shift (sarcastically nicknamed “the late show”) after her accusations of sexual harassment by a superior officers have come to nothing, also thanks to the guilty silence of her former partner. So Renée is now relegated to the graveyard shift, her cases destined to be assigned to the daytime detectives for the real work: the assignment is a career-ender and the place where the unwanted troublemakers are buried and forgotten. Still, Renée wants to do her job as best as she can, and so one night she’s faced with three cases, a credit card fraud, the savage beating of a transgender hooker and a nightclub shooting that left five victims on the ground: unable to let go what look like intriguing clues, she keeps on investigating even when the brass – in the person of Lt. Olivas, the man who harassed her – make it clear she must stay away from the cases.  Renée’s determination to do what’s right for the victims brings her dangerously close to being reprimanded – or worse – but she still keeps on going, finding herself in mortal danger and uncovering a thread of corruption inside the police department.

I liked Renée Ballard very much, both for her strengths and her frailties: a tragedy in her early life left her scarred but not broken and she’s unwilling to give in to the frustrations of a dead-end job by doing her very best day after day. What I found intriguing is the way she practically lives a homeless life, spending her free time on the beach together with her dog Lola and periodically visiting her grandmother for “laundry duty”: this choice ends up giving her a great deal of freedom, which seems to be her greater need in life. Moreover, despite the way she’s been treated she has not given in to bitter resentment and actively cares for the victims, granting them the dignity that’s often denied them when the job turns many law enforcers into jaded and cynical individuals: this is particularly true in Renée’s dealings with the transgender victim, who she’s not ready to cruelly dismiss as some of her colleagues do. And last but not least, her interactions with Lt. Olivas, even in the face of the sarcasm he wields, from the position of strength of the male privilege he wears as armor, are professionally dignified and made me respect her even more – particularly during a fantastic exchange near the end of the book.

Story-wise, The Late Show is pure Connelly magic: the three cases are interwoven through a good use of suspense, adrenaline-infused action scenes and a few quite unexpected twists and turns: one in particular caught me totally by surprise, since all clues seemed to point in a very definite direction, so that when the revelation came along I had to recover my jaw from the floor because nothing would have made me suspect that particular character.  But that’s part and parcel of this author’s trademark writing…

The usual Los Angeles background is present here as in the other novels – the hillside homes and the seediest areas, the ‘in’ nigthclubs and the streets where hookers ply their trade – but in here there is a very welcome addition coming from the beaches where Ballard goes in her off hours surfing on a paddle board (in reminiscence of the childhood she spent in Hawaii) and spending time with her dog – a delightful side character herself.

Ballard is a wonderful and successful addition to Michael Connelly’s creations and the proof that he does not fall prey to formulaic writing and character design: even though I’ve barely made a dent in his vast bibliography, it’s clear that I can expect the unexpected with each new book I approach, and I look forward to meeting again his new creature, particularly because I’ve learned that she will be back in the Bosch series by pairing with the author’s famous detective in a book some twelve titles down the road from where I stand now. It will be more than interesting to see these two work together…

My Rating:

Reviews

A DARKNESS MORE THAN NIGHT (Harry Bosch #7), by Michael Connelly

This seventh book in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series was a strange experience for me: first because it is a sort of crossover with some of his other works, given that there is an extended cameo appearance for Jack McEvoy, who I previously met in The Poet, and a co-starring role for Terry McCaleb, retired FBI profiler who first appeared in Blood Work, a book I did not read but whose story I’m familiar with thanks to the 2002 movie, starring Clint Eastwood, which I happened to see some time ago. The other difference with previous Harry Bosch books I’ve read comes from the fact that here the LAPD detective has a less active role than usual and the bulk of the investigative process is left in the hands of McCaleb. Still, this odd combination works, creating a suspenseful framework that kept my attention riveted from start to finish, even though – as it happened with the previous books – I was aware of the general narrative threads thanks to the TV series that propelled me toward these novels since last year.

Harry Bosch is heavily involved in the trial of David Storey, a movie director accused of the murder of a young actress he strangled during sex, then taking her body home and staging an apparent suicide.  Meanwhile, Detective Winston of the LAPD is dealing with the murder of a lowlife named Edward Gunn, whose strangely ritualistic details have her so baffled that she seeks the advice of Terry McCaleb, once a noted FBI profiler but now retired after a massive heart attack and subsequent transplant.  When McCaleb discovers that Bosch had been watching Gunn for some time looking for the evidence of a crime, and that some of the grisly details of the murder link back to the works of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, after whom the detective is named, he becomes convinced that Harry murdered Gunn in an act of deranged vengeance – and he’s determined to get to the bottom of it, as the two narrative threads of the story become dramatically entangled.

As I stated above, this novel has a peculiar flavor if compared with the previous ones, mostly because Harry Bosch here looks more like a guest star and Terry McCaleb is the front and center character, and for once it’s odd to see Harry not taking part in an investigation, although I have to say that the courtroom scenes where he finally enjoys the spotlight are among the best segments of the book: Connelly takes us through the sometimes painstaking details of the judicial process with such a flair that these sections are as engaging and thrilling as action scenes and they actually infuse some vitality in what had been something of a slow start with McCaleb’s part of the story.  Moreover, this change in perspective allows us to see another side of Harry Bosch – or maybe the evolution of his personality that started with the previous book: even though he’s still quite determined (or dogged, some would say), he looks more grounded, less prone to stormy outbursts, and instead focuses more closely on getting things done the right way to insure that the guilty face the justice they deserve. He’s still somewhat cynical about the system and the loopholes it offers to offenders, but he looks better inclined than before to stay within the rules to get the desired results.

On the other hand, I was dubious about McCaleb as a character, given that for someone who used to be a successful profiler he seems to fall far too easily for what is clearly a frame-up: even discarding the fact that we readers know intuitively that Bosch could not have murdered Gunn, because that’s not his style, the clues left in Gunn’s murder scene, those references pointing toward Bosch the painter and the punishments for sinners depicted in his works, everything looks contrived and – as detective Winston points out – plainly foolish for Harry to leave such a trail of breadcrumbs leading back to him. But McCaleb is so determined to follow his instinct that he chooses to ignore the obvious: this led me to wonder whether he truly was such a great profiler or if he rather wanted so badly to be once again in the “game” that he preferred to shoehorn the evidence into his choice framework rather than collecting it and then, and only then, assembling the whole picture.  Or maybe he wants so badly to reconnect with the past he clearly misses so much, that he’s ready to ignore reason and listen only to that instinct that used to serve him so well once – a that now does not seem to work that well. This single focus that at times looks close to obsession did little to endear his character to me, and even later, when he understands he might have been barking up the proverbial wrong tree, I struggled to change my opinion and to see him in a better light.

Still, the conflict between these two different individuals drives the story just as much as the two narrative threads at its root, evolving into a novel that is compellingly fast-paced, its two halves merging into one another with effortless ease and showing once again the dark side of a city where glamor and glitter hide corruption and darkness more often than not.  Showing also how Michael Connelly’s writing and plotting skills kept improving as he moved forward with this series, which to date remains one of my go-to choices when I am in the mood for some engaging thriller.

My Rating:

Reviews

INTO THE BLACK NOWHERE (Unsub #2), by Meg Gardiner

When, not long ago, I discovered Meg Gardiner as a crime/thriller writer, I vowed to read more of her works soon, and for once I was able to fulfill this promise to myself. Into the Black Nowhere is the second novel in the Unsub series, and once again it deals with the hunt for a serial killer – in this case, as I’ve since learned, one tailored on the heinous deeds of Ted Bundy.

Caitlin Hendrix, the protagonist of the search for the so-called Prophet, the serial murderer whose actions were portrayed in Unsub, is now working as the latest addition to the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit: at the start of the book the team is sent to Texas where a series of disturbing killings is plaguing the small town of Solace.  On Saturday nights women are disappearing literally into thin air, with practically no sign of a struggle, and when their bodies are found they are all dressed in nightgowns, fully made up and surrounded by Polaroid pictures of other victims – many, many more than the accounted-for recent disappearances.

When similar victims are targeted outside of town, it becomes clear that the FBI is dealing not only with a very clever perpetrator, but also one who is fully prepared to play a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with his pursuers, certain that he will prove smarter than them, and untouchable.  Thanks to some unexpected information provided by a woman who may have crossed paths with the killer in the past, and has been living in abject fear since then, the team sets their sights on an individual who seems to enjoy taunting them, and it will take all of Caitlin’s physical and mental stamina to gain the upper hand and stop the escalating killing spree.

Law enforcement procedures are front and center here, even more than they were in Unsub, which makes for an enthralling read – and one where the “gore factor” is kept to a minimum, focusing instead on the methods employed to build the different clues into as clear a picture as possible: what I liked most is the fact that we, as readers, are privy to the same level of information as the police forces, so that it feels as we are right in the center of the action and not observing it from an all-knowing, vantage position, which makes for a more intriguing story and one that moves with a breathless, relentless pace.  Even though at some point the identity of the killer ceases to be a mystery, the story never loses its momentum, turning from a fierce hunt for a nameless, faceless man, into a battle of wills and wits between opposing forces – a battle whose outcome is not certain until the very end, which offers many exciting action sequences and a constant adrenaline flow.

Character-wise, it was interesting meeting Caitlin again and seeing how her past experiences – those of her troubled youth and the more recent ones in the hunt for the Prophet – have left their mark on her and are coloring her present attitude: where in the first book she was out to prove that she could be an effective police officer despite her family’s heavy past, here she is the “rookie”, and needs to demonstrate that her previous success was not a fluke and that she could rightly belong in the FBI’s elite team.  Still, she is a flawed individual, one who is deeply scarred both physically and emotionally, and this factor is the one that lends her the human quality that many so-called kickass heroines lack: deep-seated insecurities play a pivotal role in her psychological makeup, but at the same time they prove (in this particular context) to be an asset of sorts when she decides to confront the killer on his hunting ground – an asset but also a danger, because her adversary is a cunning individual, ready to perceive and exploit any sign of weakness in his potential victims.  

These confrontations offer several moments of hair-raising uncertainty because there is no assurance that the outcome will be the hoped-for one.  Which brings me to the window opened by the author on the mind of the serial killer, whose trains of thought and motivations are showcased with no recourse to morbid detail or – worse – mustache-twirling inner musings: you see a man determined to pursue his murderous instincts but at the same time able to project a suave, non-threatening exterior that becomes even more terrifying when compared to the evil lurking beneath, and made me wonder more than once how many of these monsters are hiding under the façade of normalcy we see every day. It’s a chilling thought indeed…

Back to the characters, there is one who deserves a special mention: special agent Rainey is one of the senior officers in Caitlin’s team, and I very much enjoyed her no-nonsense attitude first, and then the fact that she acts as a form of distant mentor for Caitlin, guiding her with a delightful dry humor through the obstacles and pitfalls of her new profession. Rainey is both an experienced agent and a mother, combining her professional and personal lives into a seamless, apparently effortless whole: it’s the kind of depiction that can only reinforce a concept that fiction still has some troubles dealing with.

This second, riveting book from an author I only recently discovered can only persuade me to explore more of Meg Gardiner’s works (and I saw there is a good number of them): as samples of her writing skills both Unsub and Into the Black Nowhere are very encouraging for my future explorations of her novels, of which the third volume in this series will certainly be the next one – and soon.

My Rating:

Reviews

THE POET (Jack McEvoy #1), by Michael Connelly

Since my riveting binge of the TV show Bosch during last year’s lockdown, I’ve started reading Michael Connelly’s books focused on his most successful character and reached volume nr. 6 so far, but I’ve become aware that this very prolific author has written a good number of other standalone novels or series, so I decided to expand my search in a wider circle: once I found out that The Poet, first book in the Jack McEvoy series, is also connected to one of the next books for Harry Bosch, I decided to try it – learning that the story was about the search for a serial killer was also a strong motivator.

Jack McEvoy is a journalist specialized in the analysis of violent crimes: when his twin brother Sean, a detective with the Denver PD, takes his own life, Jack is shocked but led to think, along everyone else, that Sean was depressed because of his inability to solve a brutal murder he was working on. Searching for details on the case, Jack finds some evidence that seems to indicate Sean’s death could have been a murder disguised as a suicide, and so he starts a search that points toward a serial killer whose actions have eluded the attention of the police and also of the FBI, that is now called into action to uncover the truth under a so-far ignored chain of police officers’ “suicides”. With the help of FBI agent Rachel Walling, Jack joins the pursuit of the killer nicknamed “The Poet” from the Edgar Allan Poe quotes found on the murder scenes: the journalist is driven by the need to discover the truth about what happened to Sean, of course, but there is also the possibility of a huge scoop on the horizon, because discovery and capture of the Poet will gain nationwide attention…

The Poet starts in a quiet, almost sedate way, but once the narrative gears are set in motion the story takes on the speed of an avalanche, inexorably advancing toward the final showdown (which works also as a “to be continued” because not everything is resolved here): I have by now become familiar with Connelly’s narrative style and his successful way of taking the readers through wrong turns and blind alleys, or to trick them with some misleading clues, but here he literally does it with a vengeance, delivering a compulsive read that I found difficult to put down. One of the winning elements in this novel is the change in POV, which alternates between Jack McEvoy (presented in third person) and William Gladden, the killer (presented in first person): where Jack’s segments prove quite intriguing, because the cat-and-mouse game between law enforcement and its prey is based on the collection of clues and a desperate battle against time, Gladden’s sections take us into the mind of this man who is not only a cold-blooded murderer, but also a very organized pedophile, which adds an element of horror to the whole story – not the horror of supernatural monsters, which we can easily dismiss because we subconsciously know they don’t exist, but the horror of a very real, dangerous and disturbed mind.

Considering the subject matter and the kind of emotional triggers it involves, I admired the author’s very light hand in dealing with it and in focusing more on the psychological aspects of the issue rather than on its more shocking ones, while refraining from any kind of moral judgment. On one hand we learn that Gladden was the victim of abuse in his childhood, but on the other we cannot forget that he’s become in turn the monster whose victims have suffered the same kind of abuse before being murdered: both facts are presented as starkly and unemotionally as possible, leaving any form of further consideration to the readers themselves, which is a choice I always appreciate.

Strangely enough, while I literally devoured the novel, I could never feel any kind of attachment to the main character: with any other story this might have proved counterproductive, but in this case the excitement of the chase ended up offering the kind of balance I needed to counteract my displeasure with McEvoy. What I did not like in him is the kind of duality at the roots of his character: of course he wants to know the truth of what happened to his brother, of course he wants justice for him and all the other victims, but underneath it all there is always the need to turn it into the next Great Story, to win the fame and acclaim he craves, even if he does not consciously admit it.  Connelly’s characters are more often than not flawed, which makes them human and relatable, but I found Jack’s flaws irritating, and his desire to glean the hard facts for the sake of a Pulitzer-worthy series of articles feels… sinful, for want of a better word, because the victim who started the whole search was his brother, and from where I stand gaining fame and recognition from the death of a loved one feels like an empty accomplishment, if not a vile one. 

FBI agent Rachel Walling is, on the other hand, an intriguing character who I believe deserved more narrative space, so I hope that her return in the Harry Bosch novel linked to this one will offer further insights into her personality. What we see here is an individual who is both driven and ambitious, but holds some darkness from the past, and I look forward to learning more about her.  Her romantic relationship with McEvoy in The Poet never convinced me fully, partly because of my expressed prejudice against him, and partly because it seemed to evolve too quickly, just as it ended equally quickly, and since there is no POV from Rachel it’s impossible to get into her mind and see what makes her tick.

If, toward the end, the novel falters a little as it falls into the time-honored device of having the bad guy offer a long, drawn-out explanation to McEvoy before trying to kill him, it picks up by leaving the door open for the further exploits of the Poet, to which I certainly look forward. Given my lack of empathy with the main character, I doubt I will read other books in the Jack McEvoy series, but on the other hand The Poet confirmed that Michael Connelly is the first of my go-to authors when I am in the mood for a good thriller or a crime novel.  And there’s still a lot of ground of explore there…

My Rating: