Crime Scene: MICHAEL CONNOLLY The Burning Room. Reviewed by Peter Corris
Connelly makes the most of his crisscrossing plots and delivers a disturbing picture of a fearful America.
I’m forced to ration my reading due to my poor eyesight and I favour history, biography and historical novels over other books. Once an omnivorous reader of crime fiction, I’m now very selective and pretty much restrict myself to a few authors I can rely on – people like Rennie Airth* and Ian Rankin among the British and Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly among the Americans. On reflection, I realise why this is. These writers are historians as much as novelists.
Michael Connelly is an historian of Los Angles as much as Airth is of post-WWI London, Rankin of Edinburgh and Lehane of Boston, and never more so than in The Burning Room. Here is Connelly musing on a chapter of LA history:
The end of World War II brought prosperity to the city and federal money to provide housing for the poor. The plan was to move everyone out of Chavez Ravine, steamroll it and then rebuild, creating an orchard of low-income housing towers to which the former inhabitants of the little valley would be invited to return. The development would even be given a name that reflected the grand American dream of reaching for the brass ring, Elysian Park Heights. Some left the ravine willingly and some had to be pushed out. Houses, churches and schools were razed. But no towers were ever built. By then the world had changed. Building towers for the poor was labelled socialism. The new mayor called it un-American spending.
The upshot was that they devoted the area to a baseball stadium to house the Brooklyn Dodgers when they moved to LA.
For Connelly’s Detective Harry Bosch, LA is a traffic-choked hellhole by day but can be like a beautiful painting at night when viewed from on high. The two aspects of the city war within him as he doggedly pursues his investigations, soothing himself occasionally when time permits with classic jazz.
The book has two plots – cold cases, which criss-cross each other – and two protagonists, Bosch and newly-appointed Detective Lucia Soto. Both plots involve murder and old pro Connelly makes the most of them, switching focus between the two to maintain reader interest. As in many such stories, the hands-on detectives struggle against bureaucratic obfuscation. Pressure is on them to perform quickly. Momentum is everything in their enquiries and as a result the events have an unrelenting élan.
But necessarily there are pauses in the action and, as with all crime writers (and fiction writers generally for that matter), deep concerns about some of the underlying truths of the times and places leak through at these moments,
Bosch is strongly nostalgic for the days when the motto of a detective force was ‘get off your asses and knock on doors’, and police were not desk-bound and tied to computers and modern technology. One can’t help feeling that the writer feels the same and that it was more fun sending a character down the mean streets than having him or her rely on Google Earth.
Part of the interest in reading crime fiction is apprehending the unspoken. Guns of all kinds figure largely in the story. Detective Soto has won promotion for killing two armed robbers. Bosch is keen for his teenage daughter to be able to handle guns and takes her to a gun range to improve her skills. Bosch and Solo are upgraded to first class in a plane and given aisle seats to enable them to move quickly: ’Most flight crews he had encountered welcomed an armed presence near the cockpit.’
That the most powerful country in the world is also the most insecure and fearful is something one can take away from this book whether the author intended it or not.
The expression ‘Got it’ meaning ‘I agree’ or ‘I understand’ occurs more than twenty times in the book and becomes tedious. When Bosch is asked about his wife he replies, ‘She passed a few years back’. Connelly has a keen ear for dialogue so this appears to be what a hard-bitten LA cop would say. Passed? The euphemism grates.
This may not be the best of Connelly’s books, not the equal, say, of The Last Coyote (1996) or City of Bones (2002), but it will satisfy Connelly readers and Harry Bosch remains an engaging character.
*To forestall objections, I am aware that Rennie Airth is a South African who lives in Italy, but his novels with which I am familiar are firmly English in method and manner.
Michael Connelly The Burning Room Allen & Unwin 2014 PB 400pp $32.99
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.