Sitting in the garden of his house in Tampa, watching the city’s lights flicker across the Bay, Michael Connelly radiates the intensity of an award-winning crime reporter, which is what he was before he became a prolific and best-selling crime novelist. Looking younger than his 47 years, hair cropped short and his gaze focused behind small, rimless glasses, his mental wheels appear to always be turning. It’s easy to imagine him moving back to his writing desk the moment the interviewer has gone. And it’s even easier to imagine someone who has seen the worst Los Angeles had to offer, and remains obsessed with that city even as he tries to relax, 3,000 miles away. But Connelly’s obsession is not so much with the city as with writing about it, because he always wanted to be a novelist. ‘Yes, it was all part of a master plan. Just kidding,’ he laughs, but then admits that even as a journalism student, he took fiction writing classes. ‘Journalism was a means to an end. I studied fiction with the novelist Harry Crews. But I fell in love with Raymond Chandler when I saw Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. I read all his novels, and was drawn to LA; I devoured Ross MacDonald and Joseph Wambaugh.’
Connelly is often compared with that other obsessively Los Angeles writer, James Ellroy. Both have a fascination with LaLa land’s dark side. A DVD, called Blue Neon Night: Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles, accompanied the release of his latest novel, The Narrows, in America. In it, Connelly describes LA as a ‘sunny city filled with shady people’. Where Ellroy’s prose reflects his furious energy and his perspective is that of a native, Connelly has the sharp eye of an outsider, and the cleanly effective prose of a skilled reporter. It was a Pulitzer prize nomination Connelly received while working on a paper in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, that led to a job offer on the crime desk at the Los Angeles Times. ‘The day I arrived in LA, the headlines were about a bank robbery where the gang had tunnelled into the bank vault through the storm drains. In fact, the Times had me to write a new lead for the story as part of my try-out. But I felt this immediate frisson; I thought, jeez, this is the place to be. And that robbery became the basis of my first novel, Black Echo.’
Black Echo introduced Hieronymous ‘Harry’ Bosch, an introverted LAPD detective whose mother, a prostitute, had been murdered when he was young (a small nod to Ellroy). Although his formal name reflected Connelly’s idea of LA as a ‘garden of earthly delights’, Bosch also reflected Harry Crews. ‘Crews’s characters are usually damaged people, with a jaded world view, and there is an element of that in Bosch. More important for me was Crews’s memoir, A Childhood Biography of a Place, which begins five years before he’s born. In my books I try to move backward and forward at the same time, integrating character and place.’ He laughs again. ‘Actually, what really impressed me was that, as a novelist, Crews was larger than life. He had an aura about him when he walked across campus, and I was just an anonymous student.’
Despite his success, Connelly’s aura remains more Bosch-like. In fact, he discusses Bosch as if he were an admired colleague and friend, not a fictional character. Three novels ago, Harry quit the police after constant run-ins with authority. After two books as a private eye, he’s returning to LAPD. ‘I don’t know if he needs it, but I do,’ Connelly says. ‘I love the battles with bureaucratic obstacles. Plus, Harry solved two murders in two books, and I never saw a private detective solve ANY murders. I wanted Harry to be a private eye so I could write about him in the first person, the classic Chandler narration. Now I’ve done that, and it’s time to move on. Harry does reflect changes in my own life. The birth of our daughter is the most obvious. The cliché is true, it changes your life. As my daughter grew into a human being I could converse with, and learn from, and teach, it had a tremendous impact on me. So I jump-started Harry on fatherhood. When he learned he had a child, she was already five years old!’ Fatherhood also changed the way Connelly works. He writes most mornings, leaving the afternoons free for chores, exercise, and his daughter. Often he resumes working late in the evenings. He writes at a ferocious pace. The Narrows is the 14th novel he has published in the past 12 years. ‘Pace has never been a problem. I learned that writing to newspaper deadlines. Sometimes it’s self-generating. When we moved back to Florida, I set up office in the house we’d bought before it was decorated. There was nothing except a desk and a phone, with all these messages for the previous tenants. Wondering about them gave me the idea for a book. I wrote Chasing the Dime (2002) in about six months, the second book I’d written that year.’
Chasing the Dime is one of Connelly’s four ‘stand-alone’ novels that don’t feature Bosch. He broke through to best-seller status with the first, The Poet (1996). His next, Blood Work (1998), did even better, and was turned into a movie by Clint Eastwood. Void Moon (2000), featuring a woman cat burglar, shot straight to the top of the lists. So why does he keep coming back to Bosch when stand-alones sell better? ‘It’s not like I’m a slave to the character, but I like Harry, and because he’s aging in real time I don’t want to take a year off and not be able to see what happens to him. Actually, though, it’s harder to turn series characters into best-sellers. Publishers worry that people won’t want to join a series in the middle, but I’ve found that after each of my stand-alones, the Bosch books have done better. But all my books are connected.’
The Narrows grows out of those connections. In it, Bosch investigates the death of Terry McCaleb, protagonist of Blood Work. Connelly brought the two together in A Darkness More Than Night (2001), where McCaleb pursued Bosch as a serial-killing suspect. Now Bosch finds himself pitted against the Poet, from Connelly’s first stand-alone novel, whose return may be attributed to the mellowing influence of Connelly’s daughter. ‘The Poet was the first book I wrote after quitting journalism. The killer got away, not because I intended a sequel but because, as a reporter, I knew bad guys often got away with horrible crimes, whereas in detective fiction they’re nearly always caught. The conflict troubled me, and when I wrote The Poet I was still cynical about it. Little did I know I’d recover from my cynicism when my daughter was born. A child can wear down your resolve. So I brought him back.’
The Narrows also contains frequent references to the Eastwood film. Virtually all the Bosch novels have been optioned for movies. ‘Oliver Stone intended to film The Last Coyote (1995) with Al Pacino as Bosch. But it never happened. The references to Blood Work in this novel aren’t potshotting Clint. I try in my writing for an immediate reflection of what’s going on, to bring ‘real life’ into it. I knew someday Terry McCaleb and Harry would get together, so I planted the seed in Angels Flight (1999), establishing that McCaleb’s story was being filmed and Bosch knew who he was. I was surprised, because the critics by and large have enjoyed the references, but I have received some negative feedback from readers. I thought it would just be ignored.’ Feedback is important to Connelly, who tours extensively to promote each new book. He made a CD of Harry’s favourite jazz, called Dark Sacred Night, which he gave to fans at readings and signings. It proved so popular that his American publisher offered to underwrite a DVD. Blue Neon Night features William Petersen, star of To Live and Die in LA and more recently the TV series CSI, reading from Connelly’s books. In America it’s being given away with The Narrows. He also has a highly interactive website, michaelconnelly.com, run by his sister, Jane Davis. ‘It’s a sort of communion with the readers. They can tell me what they think. Tours wear you down, and you’re away from your family for weeks, but there’s gratification in meeting your audience. I remember my early readings, when no one came but bookstore staff, so now I’m just glad I don’t feel uncomfortable.
The Narrows refers to the narrowest section of the Los Angeles river, which becomes dangerous when it floods. Since moving back to Florida, detail has become more crucial. ‘I go back frequently to research, and I’m like a reporter, with notebook and camera, checking details. When I lived in LA I was lazier, because I felt I knew everything already. But I’m always discovering new hidden things. That’s what the DVD is all about.’ The Narrows went into the Sunday Times bestseller list at number one, just as Connelly was making a quick tour of Ireland, Britain, and France. He loved the response he got on the tour. ‘It’s particularly gratifying in Britain. My first number one best-seller was here, and for some reason my writing was appreciated more quickly here. Chandler was highly-regarded in Britain; maybe they just like the vision of Los Angeles we present.’ The other side of the coin is the inevitable deflating that will come in the British press. Connelly was amazed by a profile in The Independent. The writer interviewed him at home, then produced an amazing hatchet job, portraying him as a self-aggrandising loner, Harry Bosch crossed with Martin Amis, right down to mocking his newly-capped teeth. Sitting across from Connelly, I see no evidence of chopper enhancement. ‘He wanted to make me out as a loner, someone who can’t even get along with his own family. I gave him time alone, so when the piece came out, he wrote I was ignoring my daughter in order to chase publicity. I told him my extended family wasn’t close, they’re spread out across the United States, and that made it difficult to get together, and I regretted that. So he wrote ‘I’m not close to my family’ and made it seem like my father hated me and my work. It bothers me more because I was a journalist, and you’re supposed to be accurate, if not fair. How can someone write about sitting with you and seeing your giant yacht tied to the dock behind the house, when I didn’t even have a dock, and my boat’s something with an outboard I use to go fishing.’
The experience hasn’t put him off Britain, nor, luckily, off interviews. The key to Michael Connelly may go back to those early classes in Florida, and that early work in journalism. If you’re going to write, you have to write, and Connelly has written a series of books that have enjoyed an amazing run of success. You’d almost like to ask him to slow down, reflect, take a couple of years to produce a Bosch magnum opus. But that isn’t Bosch, and it isn’t him. Bosch works because it stays fresh and moving, written cleanly, with a reporter’s eye for detail and a cop’s perspective of the world.