Michael Connelly: From Bosch and Ballard to real-life detectives
The bestselling author has just published his latest thriller, Dark Sacred Night, while his new podcast gives voice to the ‘true stories of heroes’
Michael Connelly: “My skill is I can see something or hear something or learn something and know how I can use it in a novel.” Photograph: Mark DeLong
Not content with being the internationally bestselling author of 32 novels in 26 years and the executive producer of Bosch, the acclaimed Amazon Prime TV show based on his most enduring detective Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly is about to launch his own podcast.
It’s called The Murder Book, the first season is about a case that took 30 years to come to court and it will feature the voices of detectives who have “a deep-seated fierceness about not letting people getting away with stuff”.
Stepping out from under the cloak of fiction is not exactly a stretch for Connelly, who still considers himself a reporter at heart – virtually every page of his fiction is firmly rooted in true crime – but there’s rather more at stake for him than mid-career restlessness.
But first, there’s a new book to talk about (with Connelly, there’s always a new book). When ebullient defence lawyer Mickey Haller arrived on the scene in The Lincoln Lawyer, readers suspected it was only a matter of time (two books) before he’d come up against Harry Bosch. Detective Renée Ballard didn’t have to wait so long to find a secure foothold in Connelly’s fictional universe. Following her debut in 2016’s incendiary The Late Show, Ballard is back in Dark Sacred Night. She’s still working the graveyard shift at Hollywood Division, but now she has Bosch to contend with. When did Connelly know that Ballard was a keeper?
“You get to the end of a book and you ask yourself, am I finished with this character or is there more to say? With Renée it was very clear, I was still fascinated by her and what I wanted to do with her. I write about Harry Bosch and Bosch is a murder detective and every story is a murder story, whereas Ballard takes on anything that happens from midnight to 7am, so from the writing standpoint that’s a lot of freedom, I can explore almost anything I want. Also, she’s the kind of character who doesn’t punch out and go home at seven, she carries cases with her, she has that relentless quality, and then the third aspect was, unlike my other characters, who are usually based on an amalgam of real detectives, fictional detectives, movie detectives etc, this character was wholly inspired by one person who I have an ongoing relationship with, so am I stupid or what? Of course I’m gonna use that.”
That person is Mitzi Roberts, an LAPD detective who’s been advising Connelly for years, both on his fiction and also as a technical consultant to the Bosch TV show. Connelly speaks to me from the set in Los Angeles, where they’re shooting the fifth season and – as if to underline his centrality to the enterprise – where he is interrupted more than once by crew seeking his counsel.
The midnight shift
“Mitzi’s a homicide detective right now, but earlier in her career she spent time on the midnight shift and told me stories about the variety of cases that she was involved in, an accumulation of these stories that led me to say, this is what I want to write about. Writing a lot of murder stories, obviously those are stories of high stakes and so they are very interesting. But at the same time I guess I feel comfortable enough in my own skin as a writer that I think I can entertain people if it’s just a call about someone being on the roof of a strip club, I think I can weave together those kind of anecdotal stories and weave together an interesting portrait of a place and of a character, and that’s where the real detective, Mitzi Roberts, is so important to me, because for a few years she was that person, and a lot of those anecdotal stories are true stories she told me.”
Ballard and Bosch come together over a missing girl cold case Bosch is unofficially working. And while that’s the major plot, the novel’s rich, atmospheric texture derives from the minor key passages: the anecdotal episodes of lower stakes crime; Ballard’s glorious, existential self-sufficiency such as when she finishes her night shift she collects her dog, pitches her tent on Venice Beach and goes surfing, returning to the tent to sleep. Homage to Californian surf culture? A female Jack Reacher?
“I kind of learned a lesson with The Lincoln Lawyer. I had wanted to write about a criminal defence lawyer, but a lot of people do that and I’m not a lawyer, so I kind of bided my time until I had something interesting, then I met a lawyer who worked out of the back seat of his car and I suddenly had it, I had that book. And Mitzi would tell me about how you see the world differently when you work from 12 to seven, and your day ends when everyone else’s is beginning. I wish I could say I was the creative genius behind everything but Mitzi did what Renée did, she would finish work and go surfing, she had a dog who would watch over her stuff, sometimes she would sleep on the beach, she wasn’t quite as homeless as Renée.”
Connelly starts to laugh.
“Here am I revealing I didn’t make any of this stuff up … which goes to the part you already said, I’m always a reporter at heart, my skill is I can see something or hear something or learn something and know how I can use it in a novel.”
Reflecting the world
Characteristically modest and self-effacing as ever (Connelly is the nicest connoisseur of violent crime you could hope to meet), readers will not be fooled. Gifting Ballard a father who died in the Hawaiian surf grounds her in a profoundly fictional reality, as anyone who has read the inexpressibly moving last page of The Late Show can attest. Additionally, Ballard’s demotion occurs because her sexual harassment claim against her superior is ignored and speaks directly to our current cultural moment. Connelly demurs, however, reminding me that he wrote the first book before #MeToo; I remind him of crime fiction’s perennial ability to get to the scene early.
“Yeah, that’s one of the things that makes us proud, I’m sure you feel the same way, that we’re in this genre that doesn’t wait five years to comment about things, we’re very active in reflecting the world as things are happening, and especially in the USA there’s been this huge reckoning in the past year, and I think you’re seeing that reflected in crime novels first.
“And I wish I could say like, oh yeah, I’m Mr #MeToo, I was ahead of the wave. What I was doing was writing about a woman who has an added obstacle [of] being a female in a very male-based bureaucracy. She has had to overcome obstacles that males don’t, and sometimes those obstacles are right in her own division, her own bureau, experiences that probably 80 to 90 per cent of women who would read the book have had. Most of us don’t go out and solve murders, but we might have to deal with a boss whose hands are quick to touch you.”
A murder story
Ballard will be back with Bosch in the next book and, since all good things come in threes, Mickey Haller will be added to the mix. Meanwhile, there are podcasts. In his understated way but with discernible heat, Connelly reveals The Murder Book is not just a distraction or another marketing tool: “There was something about the constant attack, the fake news and the failing New York Times, all that somehow awakened something in me where I didn’t want to shield myself behind fiction. It’s not a political story at all, it’s a murder story, but it’s about truth, it came out of something in me saying, let’s tell a true story, and to me it’s a true story about heroes, and some of the heroes are the type that are being slighted now by our politicians, by our politician in chief at the moment.
“I want these people, like Mitzi, to have a voice, and for people to realise in this time when journalism is under fire, a lot of law enforcement is under fire, that there’s a podcast telling the truth about how hard people work and what it means to them to do this work and to do it the right way.”
Dark Sacred Night is published by Orion. Michael Connelly will be in conversation with Declan Burke at 2pm tomorrow at Dublin City Hall as part of the Murder One crimewriting festival, which runs from November 2nd-4th