The Trouble With Harry
Michael Connelly always knew he wanted to write crime novels; once dipped in the noir Los Angeleno universe of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, he was hooked on the detective genre for life. But Connelly had to go to boot camp before carving his own smoky niche in the gumshoe chain: As a newspaper journalist in Florida and L.A., he spent ten years tramping the police beat, learning the tricks of the trade firsthand before hanging up his reporter's notebook for a more enduring form of manuscript. He'll be in town this week to promote Angels Flight, the latest installment in his popular series featuring LAPD detective Harry Bosch, a conflicted protagonist with a bloodhound's nose and an outsider's soul.
"I knew it was my entree into the world of writing fiction," says Connelly, now 42, of his former career. "Newspaper work gave me a good work ethic, because you have to write every day whether you're having a good day or a bad one. And I knew if I went into journalism, I could get into the world I wanted to write about." He was still on the job when he published The Black Echo, the first Bosch book and an auspicious, prize-winning debut. Four novels later, success allowed him to retire from the press to write fiction full-time, an occupation he relishes. "L.A. is a difficult city to live in, but I get to take it on my own terms," Connelly notes. "Now I can choose when I go out into that awful traffic."
But maybe he's still a reporter at heart. Connelly not only weaves current events into his plots, but he also likes to keep up with what's hot in the competitive detective-fiction world by reading other writers, especially those working specifically out of the L.A. milieu. Nonetheless, he does that strictly for the learning experience. "I'm reading less and less crime fiction now that I've been behind the curtain and seen how Oz works," he confesses.
That's not to say he's egotistical about his skills as a writer. His research skills honed by years on the police beat, Connelly knows the value of a good source. "I'm mainly a reverse researcher," he says. "From working the cop beat, I had an inkling of an idea of how things go, so I usually write the story I want to write, then go back to see what I got wrong. I have contacts from a reliable cadre of cops--a whole group I can go to and ask for suggestions. They'll read what I've written and tell me how I've screwed it up."
However, he also appreciates the artistic freedom that fiction-writing allows. "I'm not a slave to being completely accurate," Connelly says. "Being deadly accurate can also be deadly boring, so I collapse a lot of things to give a veneer of accuracy. People can still feel like, 'Yeah, this is how they really do it,' but I'll avoid ways of going into too much detail."
Connelly also knows something about the dark side of police work, and his books, which don't skimp on reality, grimly reflect a lurid vista of hookers, porn rackets, drug abuse and twisted serial killers. "The main places I worked as a journalist, in South Florida and L.A., are two places where you never go wanting for excitement," he says. But it's all in strict counterpoint to his own life: "I'm nothing like Harry Bosch. Maybe it's subliminal, that you write out your worst nightmare just to keep it at arm's length."
Once the mood's been set, subtle character development forms the heart of Connelly's novels, and that's what he considers his greatest challenge as a writer. From that perspective, Bosch, portrayed in the new book as unlucky in love, is a piece of cake: "It's less difficult to write about a character with conflicts. I know Harry has to have conflicts in his life over the breadth of the series. Last time I wrote about Harry, he ended up happy on a personal level, so I knew in this book, I'd have to take him down a notch. I thought it would be interesting to see what a hard-boiled guy like Harry Bosch would be like with a broken heart."
How, then, does Connelly feel about a Hollywood intrusion into his carefully plotted novelistic cosmos? When he makes a sly reference to his last bestseller, a non-Bosch thriller titled Blood Work, early in Angels Flight, it's to note that Clint Eastwood, fictionally cast as the protagonist in a film version of that story, looks nothing like McCaleb, that book's lead character. "That's an inside joke," Connelly admits. "Blood Work has been optioned by Clint, but the project is moving very slow."
He doesn't object to the prospect of seeing his main man, Bosch, translated to the big screen, though he doesn't really envision a particular actor for the role. "I would like to see my story told in a different way," he says. "The downside is that a translation not going well is a standard in Hollywood. If it became a continuing character, I wonder if that would hurt my ability to keep writing about him. If his image is spoken for by an actor, if it becomes what Bosch is in the readers' minds, I might not be able to keep writing about him."
Then again, there's always optimism. "The only way to know," Connelly says, "is if they make it."
Michael Connelly signs Angels Flight, noon January 13, Denver Press Club, 1330 Glenarm Place, $8-$10, seating limited, 303-571-5260; 7:30 p.m. January 13, Tattered Cover Bookstore, 2955 East 1st Avenue, free, 303-322-7727; 7 p.m. January 14, Rue Morgue Bookstore, 946 Pearl Street, Boulder, free, 303-443-8346.
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