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Inside investigation

In the new `Echo Park,' Michael Connelly probes Harry Bosch's mind and takes another look at a part of L.A.

October 18, 2006|August Brown | Times Staff Writer

Michael Connelly has written more than a million words about Harry Bosch. Over 12 of Connelly's hard-bitten crime fiction novels, the cocky Los Angeles detective has investigated his mother's murder, fallen for a comely FBI agent and brooded over botched investigations. So it's understandable that some readers, after all their investment in following him, take Bosch's exploits quite personally.

"One time, at a book signing in Paris, this woman stood up and said, 'I'm very worried about Harry Bosch,' as if he were a real person," Connelly said. "I remember thinking, 'I live halfway across the world in Los Angeles and whatever I've done in my little room near the 101 Freeway makes this woman worried about a character that doesn't exist.' "

That sort of emotional attachment to Bosch likely comes from Connelly's attention to the detective's tumultuous internal life. For every fiend he catches, there's been a long-lost daughter or a rough breakup for him to come to terms with. "Echo Park," Connelly's latest and his 17th novel, puts his emotional turmoil front and center, even more than the case he's trying to solve.

The novel's central crime, a young woman's murder that Bosch couldn't crack, is nearly a decade old when the narrative begins. A serial killer comes forward to confess, and Bosch is forced to examine where he went wrong the first time, while uncomfortably reuniting with an old lover assisting on the case.

The novel's reverse narrative, with the crime apparently solved in the book's first few pages, isn't all that radical in crime fiction. The real mystery of "Echo Park" is if Connelly can reveal something original about guilt and regret without the hook of a puzzle novel. Released earlier this month, initial reviews have been positive, and Connelly feels that the new approach is a natural extension of Bosch's personality.

"When I was thinking in terms of Bosch, I had written about him 11 times," Connelly said from his writing studio in Tampa, Fla., where he moved from L.A. five years ago. "I wanted to try and see him in a new light. Harry is often sure of himself and his instincts to the point of being arrogant about it. One thing I hadn't explored with him was self-doubt."

The tropes and cliches of the hard-boiled detective yarn are present but now largely beside the point in Connelly's fiction. The grimy street scenes and grizzled cop jargon feel straight off the LAPD police blotter. But in "Echo Park," the particulars of the casework are a way into Bosch's mind. Connelly still keeps close contacts within the department, and that continues to inform Bosch's evolving fictional world. "I was friends with a couple of cops that got shifted into cold case, so I had an entree into that world," Connelly said. "When [LAPD Chief William] Bratton came in, he was familiar with my work and he kept the door open. My access for research to the cold case squad is sometimes astonishing to me."

Though Connelly usually spends around four days a month in Los Angeles for research, he admits that the city sometimes changes faster than he can keep track of from across the country. Connelly rewrote several major passages and plot points of "Echo Park" even after the galley editions had been pressed. He had a hunch that his descriptions of the once-dangerous but now rapidly gentrifying neighborhood lacked the color and detail that make Los Angeles such an essential character in his novels. "I try to be as accurate and current about the city as I can be, and that reflects well on Harry and it helps me delineate his character," Connelly said. "I wasn't happy with the descriptions of Echo Park. When I write about Los Angeles, I'm 3,000 miles away, and I was four to five years behind on the way I viewed Echo Park. The last thing I want is for anyone to read one of my books and say, 'This guy doesn't live here anymore.' "

In addition to "Echo Park," Connelly has also completed a new novella, "The Overlook," which the New York Times' Sunday magazine has been publishing in weekly installments since September. In it, Bosch investigates a murder with ties to terrorism and chemical weapons smuggling. The politically charged subject matter raises the stakes, and potential risks, for Connelly as an author concerned with evildoing in the modern world. "It's hard to do that well; the last thing you want to do is be didactic about anything," Connelly said.

The novella is likely to raise Connelly's profile among audiences unfamiliar with crime fiction. But Connelly's editor thinks the Bosch novels often have a contemporary feel. "I think crime fiction can be compelling without necessarily making direct references to current events," said Asya Muchnick, senior editor at Little, Brown. "The plots of the books are in no way 'ripped from today's headlines,' which might quickly feel dated, but Harry Bosch sometimes does catch cases that reflect what's going on in the wider world."

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