Michael Connelly is looking to stage a kidnapping. The writer wheels his rented SUV through the streets of Hancock Park. He turns right at 5th Street and Windsor Boulevard, and a two-story villa set back from the street catches his eye.
The trash cans are out. A woman in a bathrobe, standing on the front porch, turns to stare.
He pulls out his iPhone and takes a picture. He lifts his foot off the brake and idles ahead. He's pleased with what he found: a waist-high bush on the corner, the Hollywood sign in the distance, palm trees angling overhead, a little crack in the sidewalk edging toward the lawn.
He likes Hancock Park. "The islands of wealth in Los Angeles are often protected by mountains and by the sea," he says. "There is no protection in Hancock Park."
For nearly 20 years, Connelly has prowled the streets of L.A., quick to expose their contradictions and cruelties. At age 53, he's written a shelf full of books, and he's here today to research the latest, due out in October. He's 342 pages into it.
He came to L.A. for a mystery writers' convention and added a day for himself. The agenda: Find a house for a kidnapping and an alley for a body drop, tour Mulholland Drive, check out a sinkhole and poke around Franklin Canyon for a spot where … well, he's not entirely certain how the book will end.
He pulls onto Wilshire Boulevard, westbound. The welter of L.A.'s Mid-City streetscape slips by: billboards, super graphics, office buildings, a few bungalows, power lines and traffic signals, corporate logos and mom-and-pop signage.
Since 2001, he has lived in Tampa, Fla., and writing about a city 2,000 miles away forces him to be diligent about details that a local might skip over.
"Connelly is a skilled urban geographer. Like Raymond Chandler, he gives us Los Angeles in a prosaic, very realistic manner," says Kevin Starr, professor of history at USC. "A lot of Southern California mystery writers give us an overwrought, symbolic landscape from the beginning, but in Connelly, the ominous and dangerous creep up upon you out of the ordinary."
Details matter to Connelly, and although he is a fiction writer, he isn't about to make everything up. He'll joke and say it's his lack of imagination. Truth is: He enjoys collecting even the smallest elements. They help him connect to the story once he has returned home, and he uses them to build atmosphere.
A crack in the sidewalk, "like a scar on the face," is suggestive of past violence; a street called Windsor, just like the castle, is nicely ironic for a kidnapping.
Just before the El Rey Theatre, he heads up Dunsmuir Avenue, puzzled that there's no alley, just a large parking lot for the His and Hers Hair Goods Co. He circles the block and parks on Burnside Avenue. He can't find coins for the meter. He'll risk it. He shuffles across the street, blue shirt untucked, dark glasses on, carrying himself with a bit of a slouch.
From the day he arrived in the late 1980s in the city of his literary hero, Raymond Chandler, Los Angeles has provided him with plenty of leads. A crime reporter for The Times in the Valley, he filed away material from his beat and, after publishing three novels, left the paper in 1993, eventually moving east.
He now lives in a quiet Tampa suburb called Davis Islands, and his office looks out on a bay with a dock and a 23-foot Boston Whaler that he'll tell you gets too little use. When he writes, he pulls down the black-out curtains, and nothing gets in his way — except his own sense of what works and what doesn't.
Last spring, after the tour for "The Scarecrow" and before the publication of "Nine Dragons," he was trying to get up to speed on a book whose central crime borrowed from the Bernard Madoff scandal, but after 140 pages, neither he nor his lead investigator, protagonist LAPD Det. Hieronymus Bosch, could get any traction.
Then one morning during a rundown of the usual websites — LATimes, LAObserved, LAPD, DeadlineHollywood, LAdowntownnews and losanjealous — he read a headline that stopped him. "Child abduction survivor lives with fear and guilt," it read. "When she was 8, Opal Horton escaped from a kidnapper. Her friend wasn't so lucky. Now 32, she testifies at a man's sentencing in the slaying of another girl."
Connelly felt a shiver of recognition. He put aside the Madoff story and, following his gut, began to write the kidnapping scene, making a few changes from the news account in order to turn up the emotions.
Friends became sisters. It was a game of hide-and-go-seek. "One, two, three...." A tow truck passes by. "Four, five, six...." Sarah Ann hid, then there was silence, a stranger's words, a struggle. In an instant Melissa Landy was gone, and Sarah Ann saw it all through the bushes.