Titus Welliver, right, poses with Michael Connelly at the season two premiere of Amazon's "Bosch." (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Michael Connelly loves free jazz, To Kill a Mockingbird and walks by the ocean near his Los Angeles home. He especially loves a good old-fashioned murder mystery, and has written at least one a year for the last 25. And he loves traffic. Or at least it sometimes seems that way from his books, in which his adopted city, and in particular its famously byzantine freeway system, figures almost as prominently as his hero, Detective Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch.
So it seems especially fitting, or mortifying, that I am late to interview the American novelist at his house because my taxi driver is lost. On the way from the airport to Connelly's house we had passed fixtures of his whodunnits: pawn shops hawking electric guitars and surfboards; used car dealership with names like DREAM AUTO; Wilshire, Sunset, and all those magnificently grotty underpasses.
Nowhere does seedy like LA, but when you've sold 58 million books, and the film adaptation of one relaunched Matthew McConaughey's movie career (The Lincoln Lawyer), while others inspired a hit Amazon TV series now shooting its fourth season (Bosch), you live far away from that, amid the fragrant Hollywood Hills. The streets are so winding, the landscape so verdant, the gates so high, it's enough to make Mosman and Toorak jealous. Incredibly, in the birthplace of special effects and high-tech breasts, there's no mobile reception up here – which means no way to navigate our way to Connelly's aerie.
It's a good problem for a writer to have, I say to him when we finally arrive at his secluded bungalow. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the city, framing a view to the southeast so distracting that no work can be done unless the blinds are down. "You know that song, New York, New York?" he says. "If I can make it here, I'll make it anywhere? That's kind of like LA.
"It happened in my own life, and now I'm sitting here looking at this great view. But I came here because I was a failed novelist and it wasn't working for me. It really was the last swing of the bat."
That's a baseball term, he adds quickly. "Three strikes and you're out probably doesn't make much sense in Australia." It's a typically solicitous gesture. So much so it's hard to keep in mind that this genial, bespectacled 60-year-old in a linen button-down shirt, who apologises during our conversation for the murmur of his dishwasher, has made a spectacular living dreaming up ways to kill people.
Connelly is exacting in his speech, self-editing clichés, quoting phrases which came up earlier, reassuring me that he's going to get to the point soon and that what he thinks of as a digression "actually ties in". This could be because he got his start as a reporter, first on the crime beat in his native state of Florida, then, following a move across the country in 1989, at the Los Angeles Times. The strikes he mentioned were the novels Connelly wrote in his 20s but never published: murder mysteries about runaway children in the resort town of Fort Lauderdale, where he grew up.
"Every time I visit Brisbane, I think, 'This is my childhood,' " Connelly says of that sunny, relaxed waterside city. "But the novels didn't work, and that was part of the process: I grew up here, I'm writing about where I grew up, maybe I should shake things up and move."
He describes his move to Los Angeles as happenstance, but Connelly's 1987 Pulitzer Prize nomination, for articles written as part of a reporting team on the aftermath of a plane crash, probably helped get his foot in the door at the LA Times. A love for Raymond Chandler's noir classics nurtured since university ("I bought all his novels, stopped going to class and just read them back to back") was another reason to head west. The clock was ticking for the aspiring novelist from the minute he arrived. "My wife and I wanted to start a family, and you can't do that if you're going to be in a room writing into the middle of the night."
Fortunately, on the police beat, inspiration for his fiction wasn't hard to find. "As soon as I got to LA," Connelly says, "there was this big crime where these guys tunnelled underneath a bank on a three-day weekend and went right up to the vault and emptied everything out." The robbery has never been solved, but The Black Echo, Connelly's first published novel, bears its influence. Beginning with a dead body in a pipe, the 1992 thriller introduces Harry Bosch, now the star of 23 books, as a Vietnam vet who spent the war as a "tunnel rat" chasing the Vietcong.
Bosch's ex-military status is key to his character. He's an unfailingly conscientious detective who never lets his superiors in the Los Angeles Police Department down, even when they frustrate him with their insistence on bureaucracy. Peace of mind, though, is elusive. The women Bosch loves leave; his old friends are corrupted; wracked with insomnia, he turns to alcohol and cigarettes.
Connelly says he didn't set out to write about the effects of war. It was simply that "things fell together. When I was covering the LAPD [at the Los Angeles Times], 90 per cent of the force were Vietnam vets. It was a natural progression into uniform."
Although his debut gained critical recognition, including the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Award for best first novel from the Mystery Writers of America, it wasn't until Connelly's third book, The Concrete Blonde, came out in 1994 that he was able to quit his day job and focus on Bosch full-time. Sales were helped along when then-president Bill Clinton was snapped with a copy underarm, leading The New York Times to wonder, rather innocently in retrospect, whether "the alacrity with which the President snatched up this rough bit of goods would seem to indicate that he likes his genre fiction hard-boiled and a bit racy".
But although the Times was dismissive of The Concrete Blonde (a "blunt-spoken police procedural"), Connelly's assiduous research via sources from his experience in newspapers has earned him a grudging respect from reviewers. His latest Bosch book, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, which involves the detective stepping back into the city archives to solve the murder of a wealthy patriarch, received a particularly rapturous reception. The Washington Post declared that "Connelly has been brilliantly updating and enlarging the possibilities of the classic LA hard-boiled novel", adding that Wrong Side was an accomplishment in its own right: "Brooding and intricate, suspenseful and sad."
Much like the dystopic universe of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, Connelly has expanded his cast of Los Angeles crime fighters to include other characters who know and interact with each other. There's Mickey Haller, a maverick criminal lawyer who is Bosch's half-brother; crime reporter Jack McEvoy (subject of Connelly's favourite book, The Poet) and, most recently, a woman protagonist. In The Late Show, out this month, Renée Ballard works the night shift in the Hollywood branch of the Los Angeles Police Department. As usual with Connelly, Ballard is based on a real-life person: in this case, Mitzi Roberts, an LAPD detective who has been a consultant for Connelly on his books for 10 years.
Connelly says Roberts was particularly helpful in crafting realistic dialogue. He gives an example, worrying that it might be too "R rated" for Good Weekend. "There's a scene where a character is at a rape treatment centre being examined for evidence. They don't find any, so I had the nurse say, 'There's no sign of semen.' And Mitzi says, the nurses always go, 'No swimmers.' So that's a great piece of dialogue." He pauses. "You see, I'm not a creative genius!"
But while he might be able to hand off credit for his books' lifelike accuracy to others, the tightly constructed plots are trademark Connelly, and the momentum of his last few chapters reliably induces sweaty palms. The writing itself is perhaps less distinctive. "He's not a stylist, or at least not a subtle one," said prominent reviewer Janet Maslin in a 2015 New York Times review of The Crossing. (A phrase singled out in the review: "It all added up to spinning wheels, but they were wheels that needed to be spun.")
I didn't run this notion by him but I suspect Michael Connelly would be okay with this criticism. The most important thing for him is finishing the book. That's what he wants for the reader – he's in the entertainment business, after all – and it's also what he wants for himself. Rarely have I encountered a writer so exquisitely devoid of neurosis about the creative process. Connelly just gets it done.
"I like to keep to my schedule," he says with a shrug, showing me the small, neat study off the living room in which he does his writing. There's memorabilia from past triumphs (the biggest is a Lincoln Lawyer poster, with McConaughey perched on his character's namesake car), a Hieronymus Bosch print ("I think it's the last panel from The Ascension, showing the light at the end of the tunnel") and a record player on which he plays only music without lyrics. (Currently on rotation: John Coltrane's Lush Life.)
Connelly works between 10am and 2pm every day. He says he doesn't know where he gets his discipline from, adding that he flunked out of his first university course, in engineering. "One part of it might be the newspaper business," he says. "I was writing multiple stories a day, and after the pressure of that, writing fiction with one deadline a year is kind of a breeze." Oh yes – did I mention that he starts a new book every December, which is published the following November?
Various interviewers have tried to attribute this work ethic to a pseudo-psychological cause. Connelly's father was a frustrated artist, and was forced to take a day job in real estate to pay the bills. So, I ask, is it true? Were you conscious of needing to make a living from creativity?
"Sort of," he says. Like his alter ego Bosch, Connelly is ever wary of grandiosity. "When I went home at 20 to tell my parents I don't want to be an engineer, I want to try and write books, I was braced for, 'That's not gonna happen.' But I didn't get that response, and maybe it was because of my dad's experience of having an artistic dream and having to put it aside."
Not only was his father supportive, Connelly says, but he sat down with his son to make a plan for how he could fulfil his dream. This amounted, in essence, to deferral. "He said there were not a lot of 22-year-old novelists, and that you've got to experience, you've got to live." He suggested Connelly switch to journalism, learn the value of a steady salary and return to creative writing in a few years.
Titus Welliver, left, plays Harry Bosch in the Amazon series based on the books by mystery writer Michael Connelly, right. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
He's glad for his father's advice: "We wouldn't be sitting here if I hadn't been a journalist." And yet, for someone who attributes his success to the news business, he shrewdly evades discussion of anything too topical.
Your novels are about the police, I venture. They are sympathetic to how hard the job is. (Connelly nods.) So how do you respond to the national conversation about police brutality, particularly towards black Americans, in recent years? Have events like those in 2014 in the city of Ferguson, Missouri – where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer and widespread riots followed – made writing about the police a little bit more, well, complicated?
"Last week was the 25th anniversary of the riots that we had here," Connelly says, referring to the civil unrest in Los Angeles shortly after he arrived in town. "Have we really come that far when we still have questionable things …?" He veers off course to tell a story about how filming of his TV series was interrupted last year when Black Lives Matter protesters in downtown LA thought actors dressed as police recruits were real. "But, um … the thing that is hard for me to explain is that I write about detectives, and almost all of these problems involve the uniformed police officers that I don't really care about in my writing."
This strikes me as a bit of a dodge. What about the broader culture of police departments, and how it seems to lead to the targeting of minorities? Does he have a responsibility to reflect that culture, even if it makes for a grittier read?
"It makes the detectives' world harder because they're painted with the same brush," he allows. "So in a weird way these questions about policing the police are good for me, because it adds to the obstacles Harry Bosch has to get over."
Will there be a forthcoming Bosch book which mentions Black Lives Matter? "These [epoch-defining events] definitely have to be reflected, but you just run a fine line of being didactic," Connelly says. "In my last book I had one little paragraph that questioned whether it makes any sense at all to build a wall along the border. It's pretty clear this is going on in Bosch's mind and it's pretty clear that he thought it was stupid. People will find a way over, around or under that wall."
Connelly says he got "tons of hate mail" for that benign sentiment – just like he did when he suggested, via Bosch, that the George W. Bush-era Patriot Act was "sacrificing long-term freedoms for a quick fix". It's a sign of how polarised American culture is. And when you've got an audience as big as his, maybe it makes sense for Connelly to avoid politics.
Still, there is one ethos the writer is comfortable espousing: Bosch's. "Everybody matters or nobody matters," he reiterates in every book. That credo of basic fairness in policing is, Connelly says, "kind of an answer for all occasions if you ask me".
This is practically an invitation to think of Bosch and Connelly, creation and creator, as one and the same. How strange to think of them travelling together across the decades to this house in the Hollywood Hills. They are, after all, the same age, and although Connelly is married and Bosch is not, they have similar families, with daughters currently at university. (Bosch's daughter wants to be a detective; Connelly's a forensic psychologist. The latter is a fan of Law & Order SVU, her dad says, and doesn't really read his books.)
Even more surreal is when Connelly takes me out on his deck and points further up the hill to a little green place on stilts, almost like a tree house. It's Bosch's residence on his Amazon show, although according to his books, it is actually meant to be in a less glitzy locale a few suburbs over.
"I didn't realise I'd be able to see it from here," Connelly says, and there's a hint of awe in his otherwise slightly gruff demeanour. Then again, Connelly also didn't realise when he moved here as a young reporter that he'd one day live among houses owned by the likes of Katy Perry and Ice-T. He points to Perry's, which is a powder-blue palace stacked on many levels with a giant aquamarine pool out the front. There's an army of construction workers swarming around it.
Come to think of it, our entire interview has been dominated by the sound of mansions being built, torn down, renovated, realised. For a writer in constant motion, writing about a city in constant search of perfection, it's an elegant parallel.
Amelia Lester travelled to Los Angeles courtesy of Allen & Unwin. Michael Connelly's The Late Show is released on July 12.