The Late Show by Michael Connelly, ISBN-13: 978-0316225984
A ‘next new’ book by Michael Connelly is always exciting; a new series by Connelly is even more exciting, and the way he sets out his stall in the first paragraph of The Late Show suggests a renewed interest in and connexion with social issues including the LAPD’s politics, workplace harassment, trans prostitution, and, casually, cleverly, race. Connelly has almost always put men at the centre of his fictional universe, leaving women in the crime genres’ usual subjects. That has included most of Bosch’s partners (but not his daughter); Mickey Haller is a different kettle of fish. The protagonist here is Renee Ballard, a Hawaiian (only slightly dark-skinned) who mainly grew up with her Hawaiian grandmother in Ventura, and who works the night shift in the Hollywood station, having been demoted and despatched there for accusing her former boss of sexual harassment. Everybody knew he was guilty, but nobody, including her partner, put his hand up. There don’t seem to be any female hands going up at all, and the shortage of women cops remains. Renee is frustrated by her new partner, understandably burnt out and with a wife suffering from cancer; by never getting to see a case through; and—it must be said—by not having much of a life outside the job. She paddles, taking good care of her boards while keeping up her strength; she has a rescued dog that has to spend more time with a carer than is good for her; her grandmother; and not much else. What marks the biggest surprise is change in the way LA detectives treat the people they protect and serve, and the new sensitivity which leads Ballard and Jenkins to change the role of lead depending upon the gender of the victim they interview.
Their night begins with a wallet and credit card theft, then a transitioning Hispanic man who’s been kidnapped, badly beaten, and dumped in a parking lot, the cops are summoned to a multi-victim shooting in a nightclub. As in the Bosch or Lincoln Lawyer series, what appear to be independent crimes turn out to be thematically interwoven, and Bosch’s humanity (‘everybody counts’) shifts the gears of LAPD investigations to put a woman in the centre. The book is, as usual, informative about police procedure and police slang, and Connelly’s eye for particularities and detail contributes to his creation of a complex place in our time. If there appears to be an absence of everyday misogyny and racism, it becomes clear that sympathy for Ballard is present but unexpressed, though her former partner’s failure to back her remains a sore. Ballard takes herself to task as she has to make decisions about how to live as a victim of her colleagues, and finally to deal with self-serving apologies (of a sort—tough guys aren’t good at apologies) from the men who wrecked her career and still have power over her, who own the narrative of what went wrong. There is a final surprise here, but, should I reveal it, Barry Forshaw will rescind my licence.
The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne, Picador July 2017 ISBN-13:978-1509837588
This debut novel unfolds slowly, worryingly, and with panache. Eleanor, Richard, and their two young children, have moved in to a four-storey townhouse in gentrifying East London. Richard’s plans have been for major refurbishments and improvements: the words ‘Farrow and Ball’ never appear, though paint squares certainly do. His decision to work part-time as a lawyer while he writes a thesis doesn’t help the family finances, the couple have overestimated the reach of their two part-time salaries, and the planned works have to be continuously postponed. But the house is full of noises, and Eleanor begins to feel that it is making her ill. The walls of the upstairs room of the title are covered with the name of the daughter of the couple who sold them the house, and her writing of her own name on the walls permeates the house. Is Rosie, their older child, haunted by the mysterious muliplying ‘Emily’? Of course not: her biting is merely a phase, as are her other tantrums.
To help cover expenses, a lodger has been found for the basement flat. Zoe has recently split up after six years with her boyfriend, and now works in an art shop. A new boyfriend is just beyond the horizon, but appear he does. The parallels between the two women’s experiences are well managed, and Zoe, too, thinks the house may be making her ill. One way or another, there is a lot of vomiting. Most of the book is seen from the points of view of the two women, though Richard gets more than the occasional look-in. There is a lot of back-story, Eleanor’s egotistical mother, Zoe’s ditto; Zoe’s new lover, Adam, an artist, turns out to have a girlfriend already, as well as subsidy from his parents; Richard, too, comes from wealth. He and Eleanor met at Cambridge—so far, so familiar. What makes it work is the quality of the writing, and the control of the structure. The house remains silent, but menacing, and there is apparent mystery in the previous owners, who had only one offer for the house, in which they left furniture and some belongings behind. What is wrong, and how long before everything collapses? Picador have cleverly marketed the book as a psychological suspense novel, and certainly it has that shape. I would hardly be writing about it on Crimetime.co.uk if they hadn’t. There is more to it than that. It will surely be categorized as women’s fiction, and it makes sense to encourage that view, since it is short on crime as well as the causes of crime. Its themes are versions of what we once read in Drabble or, indeed, Iris Murdoch: to marry or not; to share household responsibilities or not; to aspire with care; to accept the self-abnegation that is child-rearing and, inevitably, to put on the yoke of necessity.