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Glittering lights and dark nights

A serial thriller-writer stalks the streets of LA

18 April 2020

9:00 AM

18 April 2020

9:00 AM

The legendary Chicago newspaper columnist, Mike Royko, once observed that at a certain point in American history, the map of the continental United States had been tilted towards the west. Everything which was loose rolled all the way out to California and settled there. While Royko was obviously joking, there is usually a suggestion of the transient or impermanent in much of Californian life.

The totemic Hollywood sign provides a classic illustration. Erected in 1923 and designed to stand for only 18 months, it originally advertised a real estate development named Hollywoodland. It later became Hollywood, but was left to decay, being restored in the 1970s after a campaign led by Hugh M. Hefner, publisher of Playboy magazine. In Los Angeles, the line between reality and art disappears.

More recently, Quentin Tarantino maintained that it was extremely difficult to recreate Los Angeles in 1969 for his brilliant movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, because of the relentless destruction of the very fabric of the built environment. Foundations vanish.

Los Angeles is emblematic of the Golden State. Its freeways enable mobility but they also confer anonymity upon those wishing to exit below the radar. This particularly applies to California’s psychopathic subculture of murderers and their spectacularly vile deeds.

LA has been cursed by ghastly murders, ranging from the unsolved killings of movie director William Desmond Taylor in 1922 to the Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short in 1947. The city was terrorised by the Tate/LaBianca slaughter at the hands of the Manson Family in 1969, and then perturbed by horrors such as the atrocities committed by the Hillside Stranglers in 1977-78 and by the Grim Sleeper from 1985-2007. Note the compelling names, conferred mostly by an LA media only too eager to varnish the gruesome with the sensational.

The forces of the law are represented primarily by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Afforded heroic status by sympathetic producers such as Jack Webb, from Dragnet to Adam 12, the LAPD has not been without serious flaws over the last century or so. From time to time, federal intervention has required the police to serve under the watchful eye of the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.. Such realities add greater realism to the crime fiction that the city of ‘Lost Angels’ has spawned.

The detective is often all that stands between smirking criminal triumphs and the delivery of justice. Detective Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch, created by the prolific and impressive Michael Connelly, is the most recent, hardened and remorseless practitioner of a code which can be traced back to Raymond Chandler’s famous PI, Philip Marlowe.

Connelly has created other distinctive LA characters, such as Harry’s half-brother, the ‘Lincoln Lawyer’, Mickey Haller and Jack McEvoy, a journalist with the LA Times, where Connelly served as the crime reporter earlier in his career. In May of this year, the new Connelly novel, Fair Warning, with McEvoy as the central character, will be published.

But Harry Bosch dominates LA crime fiction, opening with the first of the Bosch novels, The Black Echo, and arriving at The Night Fire. With Connelly’s active involvement, his driven detective is now translated to the eponymous television series, Bosch. Titus Welliver is now the embodiment of Harry on the screen.

Bosch is an outsider. Orphaned by the murder of his mother (like James Ellroy in real life), Harry graduated from downtown LA orphanages to becoming a tunnel rat for the US Army in Vietnam. Post-war, the LAPD became his home.

Bosch pursues the unsolved crime of his mother’s murder. She was a prostitute and died, apparently at the hands of a client, at a squalid motel. There is no doubt that the fate of his mother has caused Harry to embrace the notion that all lives matter, regardless of background or status. Connelly’s novels see Harry pursue criminals from Hollywood celebrities to the homeless.

Now the truth of policing in LA is sometimes at variance with Harry’s imperfect, but incorruptible approach.

In the 1980s, the LAPD introduced a classification for the murders of sex workers and drug addicts, which read NHI, which stood for ‘no humans involved’. This was the climate which bred serial killers. This was exposed in Vanity Fair in a classic article titled ‘The Tales of the Grim Sleeper’. Connelly understands the constant overlapping of serious crime; police and judiciary; the media and the entertainment industry. In LA, all these elements have to be weighed in sustaining verdicts on crime.

Consider the farcical O. J. Simpson trial. The presiding judge, Lance Allen Ito, made the ludicrous decision to permit television cameras in the courtroom, resulting in reality TV. One of Simpson’s lawyers, F. Lee Bailey, was later disbarred. The lead prosecutor, Marcia Clark, migrated her skills to television and the primary investigating officer, Detective Mark Fuhrman, was discredited for having made racist comments. All of this was chronicled most eloquently by Dominick Dunne, in a regular ‘Letter from LA’, published by, you guessed it, Vanity Fair.

Mickey Haller, the ‘Lincoln Lawyer’, would have been most comfortable in Judge Ito’s court.

Connelly reinforces the traditions of LA crime noir, established by Raymond Chandler with novels like The Big Sleep, supposedly written in a booth at Musso & Franks on Hollywood Boulevard. Connelly’s LAPD is not the Benzedrine-saturated police force of James Ellroy, but as with Ellroy, Los Angeles landmarks, such as Pink’s on La Brea Avenue or the Little Flower in Chinatown make for a thoroughly credible urban backdrop.

Crime noir, with all its ambiguity, is not confined to one gender. Dorothy B. Hughes disproved that with her novels, especially In a Lonely Place. Nor is race the sole determinant. Walter Mosley, with his African American private eye, ‘Easy’ Rawlins, has placed a convincing marker down on Sunset Boulevard. Devil in a Blue Dress makes this conclusion undeniable.

However, distinguished as these authors happen to be, no one in a generation has translated the shimmering, sprawling mosaic of LA onto the page in as compelling a way as Michael Connelly.

Connelly is now recognising Harry Bosch’s age. His new principal detective, Renée Ballard (who is actually modelled on Detective Mitzi Roberts of the LAPD) is moving onto centre stage. Ballard is as committed as Bosch. All lives still matter.

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