The Black Box (2012) is I think the sixteenth in the series of American police procedurals featuring Harry Bosch of the Los Angeles Police Department. For the last five books, not counting the one he shares with Connelly’s other series hero, defence attorney Mickey Haller, Bosch has been working in the Open-Unsolved Unit. This is a clever device, as it allows the author to place the hero outside the daily homicide detective routine, but still within the departmental setting of the police procedural. It is probably also easier to think of convincing scenarios if you can use past as well as present events.
The cold case has become a popular form of TV crime drama over the last fifteen years – think Cold Case in the US, and New Tricks and Waking the Dead in the UK. The ostensible reason for this is that technological advances, in DNA and ballistics in particular, have given law enforcement agencies new ways of solving old crimes. But I think cold case dramas also play to the popular hope that the victims of crime will eventually be vindicated and their murderers brought to justice, thus restoring a sense of social order – and a confidence in police forces all too often lacking in reality.
Both the technological advances and the desire for justice for the dead are strong themes in The Black Box. The story starts with a preface set in 1992, amidst the riots that followed the exoneration of the white police officers who had allegedly assaulted black motorist Rodney King. And here’s some footage of the rioting. Bosch and his colleagues in the Homicide branch are overwhelmed by the number of murders that occurred during the riots, sometimes as a direct result of the violence, and sometimes as score settling between rival street gangs taking advantage of the chaos. Bosch attends the scene of the murder of female Swedish journalist and photographer, where the only real clue is a bullet casing he finds near her. The team has little time even to document each crime scene, and do not get the chance to go back and follow up their initial investigation because this job is handed to a special taskforce set up after the riots. Few of the murders are ever solved, and this one is no exception.
When the LAPD decides that it would be good public relations to be able to announce the resolution of some of the unsolved murders on the twentieth anniversary of the riots, Bosch asks for this case, as he has always felt guilty about failing the victim. And the bullet casing he found back then might just lead him to the killer. Can he find the ‘black box’ of the title, the ‘one thing that brings it all together and makes sense of things’? But is he even looking in the right place? And what about the politics? Does the LAPD really want the only twenty year old case to be solved to be the murder of a white woman, when all the other victims were black?
The story follows Bosch’s dictum that ‘law enforcement work is ninety-nine percent boredom and one percent adrenaline’, as he methodically follows the initial clue of the bullet casing from one piece of evidence to the next. There are also loving but sometimes inept interactions with his teenage daughter, who now lives with him – remember he didn’t even know he had a daughter until just a few books earlier, and then she was kidnapped. He is also seeing a woman he met in an earlier book, and continuing his love affair with jazzman Art Pepper. The action – the one percent adrenaline – comes with a bang at the end – ‘screaming high intensity moments of life-and-death consequence’. The threads of the story come together well, and if there is perhaps something a bit contrived about it – well, that’s pretty much true of all crime fiction. Remember John Buchan’s comment quoted in an earlier post that the detective fiction writer starts with a conclusion and then works back to invent a story that leads to it.
Many people would agree that Connelly deserves the accolade on the cover of the book as ‘the greatest living American crime writer’ not least because of his capacity to keep on turning out well crafted, satisfying crime thrillers. But as I noted in a post about the previous Harry Bosch story, The Drop (2011), some of his earlier books, such as The Narrows (2004) or A Darkness More that Night (2001) have more flare about them. Perhaps, after all, Harry is getting too cautious as he gets older.
You can read more about Michael Connelly, and the forthcoming Harry Bosch story, here. And of course there’s all the Micky Haller books as well.