Sun, Oct 22, 2006 - Page 19 News List

The "Zen" master of homicide" returns to LA

Michael Connelly's latest detective novel weaves unsurprising elements into a surprisingly suspense-filled story

By Janet Maslin  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Echo Park
By Michael Connelly
405 pages
Little, Brown

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.

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 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 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 Chandler. And Connelly now does some of his writing in 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.

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