Monday, January 26, 2015

Crime Fiction: The Burning Room
by Michael Connelly

(Editor’s note: This review comes from Anthony Rainone, a contributing editor to January Magazine and a (too-infrequent) contributor to The Rap Sheet. He lives in Brooklyn, where he writes screenplays, novels and stories.)

Los Angeles is a city in the midst of rapid change. Hotels are being renovated and renamed. Detectives are wearing expensive tasseled shoes instead of the traditional gum-soled footwear. Firmly entrenched in this neo-City of Angels, old-school LAPD Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch stands ready to do endless battle on behalf of his credo: Everyone counts or no one counts.

Each new entry in Michael Connelly’s series is a bittersweet undertaking, and The Burning Room (Little, Brown) is no different. The clock is ticking on Bosch’s mandatory retirement and his posting to the Open-Unsolved Unit. This implies that contemporary Bosch is also perhaps nearing the end of his fictional run, after 17 novel-length adventures. The character is aging in real time, so unless the author chooses to do a Barnaby Jones-type thing -- portraying an aging man using his intellect and guile, and not his decreasing brawn, to put bad guys behind bars -- we may be seeing the end of Bosch. Of course, there are tantalizing other possibilities. Maybe a new series with Bosch’s daughter, Maddie, taking up the mantle; the offspring of Bosch and deceased ex-FBI agent and gambler Eleanor Wish is already interested in police work. There is another, perhaps more thrilling possibility, however. Last year, in an interview at the Center for Fiction in Midtown Manhattan, the author alluded to back-dating Bosch and writing novels set during the time his protagonist was still in uniform. And we shouldn’t forget the Amazon TV series Bosch, which is set to debut next month. This reviewer would pay top dollar for any or all of these options.

In The Burning Room, Bosch has a new partner, Lucia “Lucky Lucy” Soto, to indoctrinate with his principles and take up his baton. Soto seems a very good candidate for such responsibilities. Like Bosch, she lost a partner and killed a suspect. She also carries childhood scars, just as Bosch does, with the same burning desire to avenge those past wrongs. At first, Bosch doesn’t know what to make of Soto. She earned her detective shield by killing armed robbers while a patrol officer, and thereby garnered a coveted spot in the Open-Unsolved Unit. While earnest in her approach to the job, there is something suspicious about Soto. Only once Bosch is satisfied with her loyalties does he realize (along with the reader) that this is a dynamic personality. Soto boasts a richness and an edginess that remind me of my two favorite former Bosch partners: Jerry Edgar and Kizmin Rider.

This latest novel starts with the primary cold-case murder: the death of a Mariachi musician, Orlando Merced. Through the years, Connelly has taken his readers on his own inspired geographical tour of various L.A. locales. Here, he introduces us to Mariachi Plaza, where Mexican musicians gather to wait for gigs, and where the latest fatality occurs. The victim in question is recently deceased, but he was originally shot 10 years before. Connelly is a master at telling a small story cocooned inside an overlay of larger thematic rings, all radiating outwards. The theme of terrorism in The Overlook (2007), for example, or of mob activity in Trunk Music (1997) -- the plot of which instead hinged on infidelity. In The Burning Room, the murder of Orlando Merced. initially investigated as a gangland drive-by shooting, quickly develops into something else when a bullet lodged near Merced’s spine is finally retrieved at autopsy. It is up to Bosch and Soto to sort through a decade’s worth of rusty facts and testimony to find the truth. In a city constantly reinventing itself, though, the degradation of the human soul that resorts to murder stays constant.

While barely into the Merced investigation, Bosch is pulled away into a second cold-case that has major implications for Soto: the Bonny Brae apartment fire, which took place 21 years ago. “Nine people, most of them children, perished” in an unlicensed day-care center housed in one of the apartments. Soto was 7 years old at the time and staying in that day-care herself when the blaze broke out. Some of the children left dead in the tragedy were her friends. After first being dubious of Soto’s intentions to solve the case in her spare time, Bosch soon realizes that that long-ago fire provided one of Soto’s chief motivations to become a cop. He understands this because he took the time to solve his mother’s murder in The Last Coyote (1995), and learned much from it. Like two thoroughbreds racing against each other, the Merced murder and the Bonny Brae disaster pull Connelly’s investigators -- and his many readers -- along a course offering an increasing tempo and perilous turns. Old thematic adversaries appear again. Bosch fights against the uptight administrative behavior of his new boss, Captain George Crowder. And in both of these fictional cases, the detectives who originally investigated the crimes see Bosch and Soto as the enemy: two cops who think they know better. The truth is that Bosch does know better. Ultimately, the snake-headed monsters of politics and wealth clash with simple greed, and Connelly once more reveals the dark underbelly of sunny L.A. Both cases come down to base passions, and both are resolved in tragic ways.

At this point in his career, Harry Bosch is like finely distilled bourbon: you can taste the layers, but you’re not sure how they got there. True fans, however, can recall what ingredients helped shape him: how he fought for his professional life in The Concrete Blonde (1994); the damage that was done to his relationship with Rachel Walling in Echo Park (2006); the countless battles with former Deputy Chief Irvin Irving, most recently in The Drop (2011); and the death of his ex-wife and only true love, Eleanor Wish, in 9 Dragons (2009). Bosch is why we buy and read the books, and why we will continue to follow him, in all his glorious incantations in the near and far future. ◊

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