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Cover Review

Just Say Noir

CITY OF BONES, A Novel By Michael Connelly, Little, Brown: 394 pp., $25.95

April 07, 2002|JACK NESSEL | Jack Nessel is a former editor of New York magazine and Psychology Today.

Maybe it's the climate: With the possible exception of South Florida, Los Angeles is home to more fictional shamuses and criminals than anyplace else in America. You can almost imagine Michael Connelly's authority-flaunting police detective Harry Bosch and Robert Crais' smart-mouthed private investigator Elvis Cole throwing each other sardonic little salutes as they cross paths on L.A.'s mean streets. They live virtually within a gunshot sound of each other in the Hollywood Hills, not all that far on the freeways from a half a dozen or so fellow storybook crime solvers, including, most notably, Faye Kellerman's Police Lt. Peter Decker; her husband Jonathan's psychologist and police consultant Alex Delaware; and Walter Mosley's reluctant defender of the oppressed, Easy Rawlins.

Once upon a time, Philip Marlowe owned the town. Raymond Chandler's knight in cheap clothing became the model for countless hard-boiled (but usually softhearted) L.A. detectives, who have been following his footprints for 60 years, one of the best of the current crop being Connelly's Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch. A middle-aged jazz-loving homicide cop who works out of the Hollywood station, Bosch is not a private eye, but he's easily recognizable as the hero Chandler described in "The Simple Art of Murder"--"a lonely man and his pride is that you treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him." He is good but not too good, tenacious, proud, insolent, driven by a steely determination that justice be done.

Bosch, like Marlowe, is a loner with a talent to annoy, a man who goes his own way, a "knight in tarnished armor," as a new woman in his life pegs him. He sees his calling as "[n]othing big, nothing heroic. Just the chance to maybe make things right every now and then."

Last year, in "A Darkness More Than Night," Harry was cleared of a series of grotesque murders straight out of "The Garden of Earthly Delights," the centerpiece of the scary tryptic painted by his namesake, the 15th century cartographer of hell. Readers familiar with the modern Bosch from even a few of his six earlier appearances knew from the start that he couldn't be guilty. Bosch is certainly a dark knight, but he was never a credible suspect.

Now, in the far superior "City of Bones," the Dark Knight returns, determined as ever to work a case his own way despite the jackals from Internal Affairs and the weasels upstairs, hands down the villains we most love to hate in all the Bosch books. As usual, his investigation threatens to embarrass the department (but a whole lot less than the real LAPD has been embarrassed lately by real corruption scandals), and the brass warns him to lay off. And, as usual, the more they want to cover up, the deeper Bosch, a former Vietnam tunnel rat, is going to dig. Think Dirty Harry.

This time he's after the truth behind the 20-year-old murder of a missing child whose bones are discovered in Laurel Canyon. (Cops, we're told, call a crime scene like this a "city of bones.") Cases don't get much colder, unless you count the prehistoric homicide revealed by bones which, we learn, bubbled up 88 years ago in the La Brea Tar Pits. But for Harry--like the crime writer James Ellroy, whose mother was murdered when he was a child--it's personal enough to become an obsession, or so we need to believe to buy his rage over a crime committed so long ago.

As the story unwinds, we are treated to enough forensic details to fill a TV season of "CSIs," along with an E-ticket ride through the city and its environs. Like all the best modern crime writers--South Boston's Dennis Lehane, South Florida's Carl Hiaasen, Washington, D.C.'s George P. Pelecanos, Louisiana's James Lee Burke, Manhattan's Lawrence Block--Connelly is strong on place, and Los Angeles, cast as a modern version of the original Bosch's underworld, may be his second favorite continuing character.

Here, the twisty investigation starts on Lookout Mountain and with time out for vodka martinis at Musso and Frank, beef dip sandwiches at Philippe's and Bob's doughnuts from the Farmers Market, proceeds to Hancock Park, Parker Center downtown, the tar pits, Venice, the Miracle Mile, Van Nuys, Palm Springs and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada before winding up in a flophouse off Hollywood Boulevard. On the way, ugly truths are uncovered leading to new deaths, not to mention a damaged partnership, the introduction of a new and dangerous woman in Bosch's life and more that's not going to be revealed here.

Enough to say this is strong Connelly: well-plotted, lean and spare and more than a little sad, without the forced endings and heavy-handed symbolism that mar some of his earlier books. The search for truth leading to unintended consequences is a cautionary theme that has worked since Sophocles, and it works here.

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