Books of the Times 'Echo Park'
Imagine if This Guy Really Existed
by Janet Maslin
The New York Times
October 16, 2006
By Michael Connelly.
405 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $26.99
Detective Harry Bosch has a Los Angeles phone number (323-244-5631) that takes messages. You can listen to his recorded voice or play back his voice mail. You can also see him on YouTube in a video that shows him enacting the opening scene from “Echo Park,” the latest book about him. And you can read a serialized version of the novella “The Overlook,” yet another of his adventures, continuing in The New York Times Magazine .
All told, Harry’s doing quite nicely for a guy who doesn’t exist.
The flip side of this fame is familiarity. By now there’s not much about Harry that Michael Connelly’s readers don’t know. Since the first Bosch novel, “The Black Echo,” appeared in 1992, readers have learned that Harry broods, loves jazz, hates corruption, behaves like a lone wolf and feels morally obligated to help crime victims who are too dead to help themselves. He likes to refer to this last part as his mission.
Mr. Connelly’s own mission is more complicated. He turns out Bosch novels at a brisk pace, but he also tries periodically to branch out beyond this inexorable franchise. His previous book was “Crime Beat,” a collection of nonfiction pieces he wrote as a newspaper reporter, with glimmers of what would eventually become the tight, propulsive Bosch style. Before that came “The Lincoln Lawyer,” the start of a less solemn crime series about Mickey Haller, Harry’s much trickier and conniving half-brother.
“Echo Park” includes a truism about “the dog you feed,” the side of oneself that an individual chooses to favor. Feeding Harry Bosch remains Mr. Connelly’s unavoidable mandate, even if it means writing what are essentially episodes of a long-running television series. Its main character holds no novelty. Almost all of its supporting characters are in place. Its well-chosen locations are murky even by Los Angeles noir standards and make picture-perfect crime scenes. Whenever Harry rivets the reader, he is succeeding at something that makes detective work look easy by comparison.
“Echo Park” is another prime demonstration of Mr. Connelly’s handiwork: he has woven entirely unsurprising elements into a surprisingly suspense-filled story. Just read his rivals in the crime genre to realize how difficult this is and how easy he makes it look. The book begins, as in that YouTube video, with the 1993 discovery of a car linked to a missing-persons case. It is found in the garage of the High Tower apartments in Hollywood, and aficionados of noir fiction should take note.
Harry’s partner mentions that this place has been made familiar by movies, but this is an understatement. It was the home of Raymond Chandler’s detective, Philip Marlowe, in Robert Altman’s 1973 version of “The Long Goodbye.” It was also home to Mr. Chandler. And Mr. Connelly now does some of his writing in Mr. Chandler’s old apartment, a place he uses for inspiration. No living crime writer has a better right to be there.
The car belonged to a young woman named Marie Gesto. She has never been found, and for 13 years she has haunted Harry. So Harry becomes extremely interested when a creep nicknamed the Echo Park Bagman, because he was caught in Echo Park with plastic bags containing body parts, confesses to having killed Marie. Guilt, obsession, justice overdue: here we go again, or so it would seem. But another staple of these books is that they give first impressions that turn out to be wrong.
The creep is called Raynard Waits. For a while he threatens to lead the way into James Patterson country, since there is a storybook connection: reynard means fox, and that means the fox of a French medieval fable. (“I studied European folklore in college,” says the character explaining this to Harry.) Add the fact that female foxes are called vixens and you have Waits, serial killer of women. You also have Hannibal Lecter, who is evoked by Waits’s taunting demeanor and eagerness to give Harry a sadistic runaround.
This is merely the setup for a novel that involves a political angle (one scheming character is running for district attorney), a few wonderfully red herrings (like the venerable character almost ready to retire from the police force and move to a Caribbean paradise), some forgotten details that remind Harry of a long-overlooked Carnegie Hall recording of John Coltrane with Thelonious Monk and, of course, Harry’s trademark insubordination. The Zen Master of Homicide, as a girlfriend and colleague teasingly calls Harry, simply isn’t very good at following orders.
Mr. Connelly stages a tense, extended sequence in which the police are directed through the wilds of Beachwood Canyon to the spot where Marie is supposedly buried. And Harry, like the Dirty Harry whose stubbornness he shares, plays ball with a killer because he has no other choice. But when this outing turns deadly, all bets are off for Harry: he begins operating as a solo agent despite having been yanked off this case. Mr. Connelly then leads him into a second, even more nerve-racking action episode that plays on Harry’s fear of tunnels. As “The Black Echo” made clear right from the start, Harry saw enough tunnels during his stint in Vietnam.
“Echo Park” takes its title not only from the Bagman but from Mr. Connelly’s typically sharp, evocative eye for his Los Angeles terrain. Of this melting-pot neighborhood near Dodger Stadium, he writes: “By day a walk down the main drag of Sunset Boulevard might require skills in five or more languages to read all of the storefronts. By night it was the only place in the city where the air could be split by the sound of gang gunfire, the cheer for a home-run ball, and the baying of the hillside coyotes — all in the same hour.” The familiar sound of Harry Bosch stalking justice can now be heard there, too.