City of angels: sunny place for shady people

By Andrew Stone

Everybody lies at a trial, bestselling crime writer Michael Connelly declares in his new book. Cops, lawyers, witnesses, victims, even the jury. And the worst thing is everybody knows this.

Connelly accepts this might seem a little cynical but it's the view which shapes the approach of his protagonist Mickey Haller.

"By design it starts with a cynical view of the justice system," says Connelly. "And Mickey Haller, well he's a bit cynical and weary too." But not too drained by a corrupt legal system that he cannot steer a path towards a place of redemption.

Haller is one of Connelly's two great fictional characters; the other is the Los Angeles Police Department detective Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch. In The Brass Verdict Connelly brings them together: Haller, the crafty defence lawyer whose office is the backseat of one of his three Lincoln Town Cars, and the brooding, relentless Bosch.

"They are both in many ways quite similar but on opposite sides of the aisle - they're flip sides of the legal coin," says Connelly. The hard-bitten cop trusts no one, and definitely not Haller.

Haller, on the other hand, wants to shine a bit of light into the dirty corners of justice: "He's going to tell you how it really works," says Connelly.

On the way readers get to glimpse the ethics of the American legal system and the moral complexities defence lawyers face with their clients.

It is through half-brothers Bosch and Haller that Connelly, a former crime reporter, starts to pick away at the deep and often dark heart of LA. When Haller goes to the Malibu mansion where his client, a Hollywood producer, was accused of murdering his wife and her lover, the lawyer looks out at the pounding Pacific: "I stared out at the waves and thought about how beneath the beautiful surface a hidden power never stopped moving."

The idea of a mobile defence lawyer came from a chance encounter at the LA ballpark Dodger Stadium with one David Ogden, an LA County lawyer who worked from his car.

"Makes sense," says the author from his home in Tampa, Florida. "There are 40 courts and 400 square miles of freeway in Los Angeles. It's the only way to cover them."

And so he put Haller in a limo and made him trawl for clients by slapping ads on bus shelters in the wild parts of town. One of the cars had the number plate "IWALKEM".

Bosch comes from an entirely different place. For a start there's that name. "I studied art at college and the starting point of all this is the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch," says Connelly, now 52 and an entrenched publishing brand. Bosch's 15th-century paintings are vivid works of debauchery and sinful human failure, alongside splendid visions of paradise.

In Connelly's LA version there are also a few different stories running in parallel. Harry Bosch connects the dots. "You could see that the painter captured a world of chaos, a world of the wages of sin ... and I thought you could kind of apply that to a crime scene."

It is not such a leap to imagine Bosch cleaning up in a hellish beat that happens to be modern-day LA. The author hastens to say this is a fictional landscape.

The CV of Connelly's homicide investigator is referenced though his books: his mother, a prostitute, was murdered when Harry was 11; the youngster spent his teenage years in orphanages; he served in Vietnam and as a cop he is forever in conflict with authority. What remains constant is his remorseless pursuit of truth, no matter who gets hurt.

Connelly has written 13 Bosch police procedurals, two legal thrillers featuring Haller and four other crime books since 1992. In the way in which art now imitates art, his chief literary creation - the driven Bosch - has achieved such status in American fiction that he has been name-checked by other crime writers.

The first recorded cameo came in 2001 in a book by Californian author Joe Grimes. Bosch is seen chewing the fat with other officers at Hollywood Station, one of the most famous copshops in LA.

A more elaborate character swapping occurred when Connelly and Robert Crais, who also sets his detective novels in LA, had books coming out simultaneously. So Crais' fictional investigator Elvis Cole gets to drive through a paragraph in Connelly's Lost Light and Cole spots Bosch at Hollywood Station in Crais' The Last Detective. Connelly feels honoured: "It's a nice compliment."

Connelly peppers his books with real people. An acknowledgment at the end of Brass Verdict thanks Judith Champagne. Superior Court Judge Judy Champagne gets a paragraph or two in the book: they are one and the same.

The author sent the manuscript to Judge Judy for checking, including the pages dealing with jury selection.

"I want to get it right," says Connelly. "I'm not a lawyer and here I'm writing a legal thriller. I had to do a lot more research for this than trained lawyers writing fiction might need." He didn't stop with the judge; he used the bailiff, the court clerk and the stenographer.

"It's a way of saying thanks. I didn't do it without telling them."

Though he grew up and lives once again in Florida, Connelly remains tied to the West Coast. He worked LA on the police beat for the Los Angeles Times, riding with cops, hunting with detectives, building up his own collection of shell casings from police funerals.

It is often LA's finest, he says, who give him the raw material to work into a novel. He recalls an editor telling him that LA was a sunny place for shady people, and somewhere between those locations lurk the best stories. The city, its pulse and the connections in-between, came alive in the hard-boiled fiction of Raymond Chandler and his private eye Philip Marlowe. Connelly considers Chandler his literary hero.

He has no plans to retire Bosch, who is 58. But Connelly says the more he writes about Bosch, the more he needs to leave him alone. "I want to forget about him sometimes so I have shifted into this cycle of alternating between him and other characters."

One diversion became the FBI criminal profiler Terry McCaleb, who is the only Connelly character so far to make it to the big screen. That was in Blood Work, which starred Clint Eastwood who bought the rights to Connelly's manuscript.

The author says if anything defines his books, it is character. But it is hard, he says, to keep Bosch fresh and evolving after so many books. "What I am doing is like peeling off a layer of onion and getting deeper and deeper into his core."

But he remains optimistic: "I think he's still got a few rounds left in the chamber."

An evening with Michael Connelly

Where and when: Takapuna Library, Wednesday, November 12, 6pm; entry $5.
Inquiries: Helen Woodhouse on (09) 486 8469 or email helenw@shorelibraries.govt.nz

- NZ Herald

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