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Why Michael Connelly is the king of detective fiction

Illustration/Weef

Ahead of his eagerly awaited tour, Michael Connelly talks about being the reigning king of LA detective fiction, his ever-expanding empire and his new true-crime podcast.

Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch is feeling his age, all near-seven decades of it. The legendary Los Angeles detective, named after a late 15th-century Dutch painter who created “hellish landscapes” full of sin and violence, is ailing. He’s been using a cane, he’s stepped back from volunteering for the tiny San Fernando PD, and the barbs from investigations past are tearing at him. Bosch survived tunnel wars in Vietnam and stared down serial killers, terrorists and LA gangsters of the street and the elite. But now, more than ever before, he’s aware of the shortening road ahead.

“Yeah, I think you’re constantly pulling from what’s going on in your own life,” says Bosch’s creator, Michael Connelly, about whether themes of time passing and the old guard moving on in his new novel, The Night Fire, were something intentionally explored, or whether they just bled through naturally as he was crafting the page-turning story. “I’ve had an amazing run and all that, but I don’t think I’m going to be writing forever. So, I guess my own mortality and creative mortality are on my mind, and they get reflected in the books I’ve been writing.”

Connelly is stuck in Los Angeles traffic while talking to the Listener, a few weeks ahead of events in Auckland and Wellington in early November – his first visit to our shores since 2011. A lot has changed in that time. Connelly, who at 63 is a few years younger than Bosch, has never been busier and is juggling many new projects.

Last time in Auckland, he appeared at a screening of The Lincoln Lawyer, a film based on the first outing of slick defence attorney Mickey Haller (Matthew McConaughey in a dramatic turn that helped kick-start “the McConaissance”). Asked about whether we’d ever see Bosch on-screen, Connelly was circumspect. He’d just got the screen rights back after 15 years of “development hell” and a tiring legal battle with a Hollywood studio.

Now, he is in the middle of shooting season six of Bosch, the smash-hit Amazon Prime show starring Titus Welliver. Connelly is a producer and writer for the show and says the new season will blend aspects from The Overlook (2007) and Dark Sacred Night (2018).

TV series Bosch starring Titus Welliver.

“I have kept pushing for The Overlook because I just think it’s a very filmable book,” he says of the tale in which Bosch investigates the murder of a doctor who is linked to the theft of a large quantity of radioactive material. “For three seasons in a row I’ve said, ‘Let’s do The Overlook’, and for various reasons we didn’t. So, the book has been high in my mind.”

So high, in fact, that that old case plays a part in his new novel, The Night Fire, which Connelly wrote while the TV producers kept knocking back his suggestion. That’s part of the cross-pollination that’s increasingly happened in Connelly’s storytelling life as he’s juggled the different worlds of his Bosch books and TV show, plus his Mickey Haller legal thrillers, and a new book series starring fierce Hollywood midnight-shift detective Renée Ballard. “It’s a lot of new stuff, and probably from the outside it looks like I’m very busy,” says Connelly.

The Night Fire brings together Connelly’s three greatest protagonists. Bosch may be ailing but his instincts are piqued when the widow of an old mentor gifts him the murder book of a long-unsolved killing. Meanwhile, fellow maverick Ballard has an arson-killing of a homeless man to investigate and Bosch’s half-brother, Haller, is defending a man who confessed to killing a judge. Bosch and Ballard team up on some matters, juggling cases and angering other cops as they go, as do Bosch and Haller.

It’s another fine read. Bosch remains relentless, though nothing is more relentless than Father Time and there’s a definite hint of a torch being passed from Bosch to Ballard.

“I’ve always aged Bosch in real time, and at this point in his life he has a lot of knowledge and experience and he’s looking for someone who can carry on his mission,” says Connelly. “In the last book, Dark Sacred Night, where he met Renée, I think he saw that this person has the same kind of fire and fierceness that he had or that he hoped he had. So, he thinks she’s the one, which is why he’s come back to her for a second time to carry the case, or more than one case.”

Ballard, a talented detective who gets relegated from the elite Robbery-Homicide Division (RHD) to a solo gig on the midnight shift after complaining about a superior’s sexual harassment, was inspired by Connelly’s police consultant and friend Mitzi Roberts, a real-life RHD detective who has brought down serial killers. “I knew Mitzi for a long time, but I didn’t know her history of working the midnight shift. When I discovered that, I felt this automatic inspiration, and that was a key part of the past five years or so of my writing. I really think it renewed me, having this new character and, hopefully, I’ve renewed the audience, too.”

The Lincoln Lawyer, starring Matthew McConaughey.

But for those hoping that the inclusion of the Bosch and Ballard novel Dark Sacred Night in season six of Bosch means we’ll soon see Ballard on-screen, Connelly has bad news, at first. “It’s a complicated rights situation, so it’s just Bosch taking that case into the TV series.”

The complication? Connelly is working towards a separate show starring Ballard. “So, in the books it’s like Bosch is passing the baton to her, but not on TV,” says Connelly. “Hopefully, she’ll stand on her own at some point.” Similarly, there will be no Haller appearances in Bosch, as legendary writer-producer David E Kelley (LA Law, Boston Legal, Big Little Lies) has a big deal for a series pilot on CBS. It sounds like a complex landscape, juggling different book and screen worlds for all these characters. “I don’t really have a problem keeping it all straight in my head, I’m just able to do it – I can’t really explain it,” says Connelly. “I’m a book writer first, and these other things are very important to me but they’re also secondary. There are usually people, very smart people, involved in these projects who kind of keep things straight for me.”

But of all the things keeping  him busy – including travelling to London last year to receive the prestigious Diamond Dagger for a career of “sustained excellence” and a “significant contribution to the genre” – it’s a project that he sees as “almost a hobby” that he calls his most fulfilling. Earlier this year, he launched “Murder Book”, a true-crime podcast. “I love doing it because it involves some detectives I’ve admired for a long time, it’s interesting, and it’s journalism. I haven’t been a working journalist for 25 years, but at heart I’ve always felt like a journalist.

“It’s fun to be telling a true story again, though I’m just the person who controls the narrative and, hopefully, the story is told by others.”

The first season, “The Tell-Tale Bullet”, which is 14 episodes long and concluded in September, examined “a Hollywood carjacking gone wrong that tests the limits of the American criminal-justice system”. In it, Connelly takes apart a case that isn’t well known but has unique aspects.

Knowing three detectives who’d handled the case – Rick Jackson, Tim Marcia and Mitzi Roberts – Connelly could give listeners an insider perspective, but that wasn’t the only lure. “It had some relentlessness in the work of the detectives in not giving up, which is what Bosch does,” says Connelly. “So I felt if I told this true story, listeners who read my books would understand some of the stuff I’m trying to bring forward and explore with Bosch.”

THE NIGHT FIRE, by Michael Connelly (Allen & Unwin, $36.99), is out now.

Micheal Connelly and Paul Thomas. Photos/Getty Images, left; Hagen Hopkins, right

Michael Connelly Live

See the international best-selling crime writer in Auckland in conversation with New Zealand’s “godfather of crime fiction”, Listener columnist Paul Thomas. The author of eight novels and a collection of short stories, Thomas has been lauded for his ground-breaking series featuring Māori detective Tito Ihaka. The early Ihaka novels were a major catalyst for the subsequent flowering of New Zealand crime fiction and have been published widely internationally.

NOTED LIVE, Sir Paul Reeves Building, AUT, 2 Governor Fitzroy Place, November 9, 7.30pm (drinks and nibbles from 7pm), click here for tickets.

In Wellington: In Conversation with Liam McIvanney. Verb Wellington Festival, Public Trust Hall, 131-135 Lambton Quay, November 8, 7.30pm, click here for tickets.

This article was first published in the November 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.