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Michael Connelly, the modern-day king of crime

Michael Connelly. Photo/Miriam Berkley

Michael Connelly has been writing about LA detectives for decades, but his 30th novel breaks new ground for the modern-day king of crime. 

The midday sun shines bright on Venice Beach as Renee Ballard dozes in her nylon tent, a few strides from the cobalt sheen of the Pacific Ocean. Her eight-foot paddleboard rests on the warm sand. The key to her panel van is buried beneath Lola, her rescue dog, who stands sentry.

Ballard usually paddles in the morning, then sleeps through the afternoon. But the Hawaiian-born ex-surfer is no California beach bum. At night, she straps on her holster and puts herself in harm’s way. For Renee Ballard is an LAPD detective on Hollywood’s midnight shift – “the Late Show”.

Michael Connelly has been writing about Los Angeles detectives for most of his life, first as a Los Angeles Times reporter, then as a mystery novelist who fuses literary quality and popularity.

His mantelpiece overflows with every major crime writing award and he’s sold more than 60 million books thanks to his intelligent page-turners told through the eyes of such characters as relentless investigator Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch and maverick lawyer Mickey Haller.

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But Connelly has never before written a series centrepiece like Renee Ballard, star of his 30th novel, The Late Show. “When I finished, I just knew without a doubt that I’m going to be writing about Renee again,” says Connelly from his home in Florida. “She’s very interesting to me.”

The acorn that grew into The Late Show was planted several years ago, courtesy of Connelly’s friend Mitzi Roberts. One of the LAPD’s leading investigators, Detective Roberts has hunted serial killers, has cracked cold cases and is known as “a closer” on big cases. She’s also a technical consultant for Bosch, the smash-hit Amazon show based on Connelly’s most famous character.

“Mitzi’s really inspiring, the way she goes about her job,” says Connelly. “Ever since I’ve known her, she’s been in homicide, but she told me how she spent time working the midnight shift in Hollywood Division. The thing that really struck me was that – contrary to what you’d expect – the detective on the midnight shift often works alone. And I thought, ‘That’s interesting; a lot can happen when you work alone’ – like a private eye sort of thing. It was really intriguing.”

Michael Connelly. Photo/Getty Images

Then last year, Connelly was about to hit 60 years old – the age at which his father died. “I felt that artistically I should do something and not just finish out my career alternating between Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch … kind of like an artistic duty. Maybe that sounds egotistical, but it was an idea I’d carried around for a while, and when my 60th birthday started being like a black cloud over my head, it all kind of came together. I thought, ‘It’s time to write about the Late Show.’”

In The Late Show, Renee Ballard has a partner but often works alone. She starts cases, but rarely finishes them. It’s punishment duty for her; she torpedoed her once-promising career by filing a sexual harassment claim against her supervisor in the elite Robbery Homicide Division.

But when a transwoman is beaten into a coma and a bar worker is caught up in a nightclub shooting, Ballard finds it hard to let go. So she works both cases by day while doing her own shift at night, ignoring orders and her partner’s wishes. The cases expose her own demons and reveal her reasons for sticking with the job despite what the LAPD hurls at her.

“There’s this idea that she would hand everything off at the end of the shift, which is the protocol and the tradition, and the job,” says Connelly. “It’s my job as a writer to examine things, so I thought, ‘What about a detective who just can’t let some stuff go, who’s too personally involved in some way, who has some kind of motivation to try to keep the cases?’ That’s when you start getting into the gristmill of pretty good fiction, so it all set up nicely.”

Although he’s often had strong female characters in his novels, it’s the first time since ex-con Cassie Black in Void Moon (1999) that a female character has carried the narrative. The switch in viewpoint was made easier by the real-life Detective Roberts.

“I have this amazingly inspirational woman who’s done the work I’m writing about. She’s telling me about it as I’m writing; we’d text multiple times a day, go out to breakfast. Every writer should have a living research subject at their fingertips whenever you have a question.

“I got a new-found respect for the difficulty of being a female detective in a world that is very male dominated. The kind of subtle nuances required to make it through, to be successful.

“And that’s kind of a pitch over the plate for me; I love the idea of writing about characters where the obstacles are within their own department, where you’ve got to fight your way through those obstacles before you can even get to solving the case. That’s really interesting to me.”

Connelly says he’s always been fascinated by crime and admits he’s wondered whether he could have been a real-life detective himself.

“But I didn’t have the temperament to get there. Back when I was in my twenties, you had to go through years of being in uniform before you qualified as a detective, and that part had zero appeal to me.

“Solving crimes as a detective? That would have been really interesting, and I might have been good at it, but I couldn’t have got there.

“So instead I stayed an observer – a writer, a journalist, a novelist.”

THE LATE SHOW, by Michael Connelly (Allen & Unwin, $36.99)

This article was first published in the August 26, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.