BE CAREFUL where you stash your guns, people. You might just be corrupting an impressionable 16-year-old.
Michael Connelly is the Irish-American author of 26 novels, the latest of which is The Drop, featuring his iconic Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) detective Harry Bosch.
From our vantage point in the plush environs of the Merrion Hotel, where the softly spoken Connelly sips tea in front of a blazing log fire, his ascent to literary superstardom, via numerous awards and critical acclaim, seems in retrospect inevitable. And yet, had the teenage Connelly not spotted a man acting suspiciously as he hid something in a bush, the world would never have heard of Connelly’s best-selling creations, which include Hieronymous ‘Harry’ Bosch, Mickey Haller and Jack McEvoy.
“I was from a middle- to upper-class background,” says Connelly, “more middle-class pretending to be upper, probably, so I had no real experience at all of the police. I loved reading crime novels and stuff like that, but this was like, ‘Wow!’. It was suddenly real life. And it wasn’t so much the crime part, finding the gun in the bush and all that.
“What left a real resonance was the night I spent with the detectives, and comparing them to detectives I’d read about. A lot of my reading was stuff handed to me by my mother, so I was going from PD James to a real PD squad-room. And that opened my eyes a little bit.
“In your life as a writer,” he reflects, “certain things have to happen, and sometimes it freaks you out a bit to go back and think, ‘What if that didn’t happen, or that.’ That moment had to happen for me to become a writer, because I was someone who’d been dropped into school in the middle of the year, and had no friends, and I became something of an introvert, which led me to read. So that was the first step. And then just happening to see this guy hide something in a bush had to happen. And then, later, I had to go see The Long Goodbye by Robert Altman at the dollar movie night at college. I didn’t have to go to that movie, that particular night. So all these elements of chance add up.”
First, though, Connelly’s Irish-American father had to move his family from Philadelphia to Florida. “I am 100% Irish,” he says. “My great-grandparents all came over from Cork. And Philadelphia is a very Catholic city, a very Irish city, especially in terms of mayors and police chiefs and so on.” He laughs. “I could have had a great career as a policeman on my name alone if I’d stayed in Philadelphia.”
Seeing Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, which was adapted from Raymond Chandler’s novel, changed Connelly’s life forever. “I stopped going to college while I read all the Chandler stuff, then read them all again, and then I went home and told my parents that I wanted to be a writer.”
His father persuaded him to ease into it via journalism. “If I went into journalism, I’d get close to that world I wanted to write about. I mean, I could’ve become a cop, but that didn’t suit me, and I could get close to cops as a journalist, get on the crime beat. And then you have the added advantage of writing every day, the work ethic that’s required.”
Connelly spent six years as a crime journalist in Florida, moving to the LA Times in 1986 after winning the Pulitzer Prize. A romantic notion sent him looking to rent the apartment that Chandler’s private eye Marlowe occupied in The Long Goodbye.
“I went to the High Tower and knocked on the manager’s door, and asked if by any chance was that apartment available. It wasn’t, so I gave him my name, and said I was going to be working at the LA Times if it came free. And he called back,” he laughs, “15 years later.”
By then Connelly was a best-selling author, blending the tarnished romance of Chandler’s novels with a hard-nosed style born of his experience in journalism.
“I was really intent on keeping my knowledge of the real crime scene,” he says. “I think it’s pretty clear, when you look at my books, that I was a journalist. There isn’t a lot of descriptions, because in newspapers you don’t have room for that stuff, and if you’re going to have a description, you make it short and you make it count. Make sure dialogue advances the story. Short, punchy sentences, kind of Hemingway stuff. All the rules of journalism apply.”
The realism also applies to Harry Bosch in The Drop, who is aging faster than Connelly would like him to. “Harry was born in 1950, so it’s not realistic that he’d be doing this job too much longer. There’s not a single homicide detective in the LAPD that’s older than Harry.” During the novel, Harry persuades the powers-that-be to postpone his retirement by five years. “Now I just have to write as many Harry books as I can in the next five years,” Connelly laughs.
Bosch’s fear of retirement reflects Connelly’s own concerns about his capacity to continue producing top-class work.
“Even when I was a young writer I was always fearful of the mystical nature of creating stories,” he says. “Of where it comes from, and how long you have it. This is going to sound like I’m a big name-dropper, but I was able to sit down recently and have a conversation with Eric Clapton, and the guy is always on the road. I asked him why, and he said, ‘Because I don’t think this will last that long. I think my faculties will start to deteriorate at some point, so I’m going to do it as long as I can do it.’ But then, every time I have a fear like that, I look at Elmore Leonard, who’s still writing fantastic stuff at 83. I just read James Lee Burke’s latest book, and he’s 75 and it’s a great book. So it’s like, what am I worried about? But,” he shrugs, “y’know …”
The conversation turns to the essence of the crime novel, the core issues of right and wrong, the never-ending battle between good and evil.
“Well,” he grins self-consciously, “now we’re getting real existentialist, aren’t we? But yeah, I suppose that’s here in [The Drop]. Characters keep pushing Harry to answer these big questions and he steadfastly refuses to answer, because he doesn’t need to know the answer in order to do what he needs to do. In many ways, that’s my approach too. I don’t need to know evil to write about it.
“As for whether evil can be identified, or quantified …” He pauses. “I don’t know about any balance between evil and good,” he says, “or whether our changing times has created a surplus of evil, or more of it than there used to be.” Another shrug, a wry smile. “I guess these are the kind of questions that keep us writing, aren’t they?”