BOOK REVIEW: Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly

Nine Dragons hits stores everywhere October 12.

Nine Dragons hits stores everywhere October 13.

Fans of novelist Michael Connelly will have noticed by now that with each new novel featuring Lt. Harry Bosch, his veteran LAPD homicide detective, the pace is quicker, the plotting is tighter, the knuckles whiter. Not that any of these aspects were ever lacking before. Since his 1992 debut with The Black Echo, which won that year’s Edgar (a fact I well know since I was on the panel of judges that awarded it), Connelly increases his credibility each time out as a writer who knows LA, LA cops, noir, and all the inherent genre traditions that implies. This would be a simple matter if his first book had been a lame one, but it wasn’t (see above). Now, over a dozen novels later, the suspense and speed of his narratives has almost become too much to bear, going beyond the “can’t put it down” syndrome to the “where the hell can he go next?” question.

In Nine Dragons, which comes out on October 12, the question eventually even finds voice with Bosch himself. Believe it or not.

Connelly is a master at many of the things that draw us back to the deep well that is the noir novel. He gets the unique mood and weirdness of Los Angeles people, weather, traffic and the circus life, and he expertly uses music to not only establish mood, but inner dialogues. In Nine Dragons, Bosch listens to Ron Carter song on his iPod and observes that the veteran jazz bassist always seems to be driving the groove and pushing the tempo ahead, no wonder Carter mostly worked as a bandleader; he’s the kind of guy who has to run the show, even when he was working with Miles Davis. This isn’t just a comparison between the personalities of a jazz musician and a cop, but an omen of trouble ahead. Big trouble.
This novel starts with Bosch impatiently waiting for a new case. He is rewarded with a call to South LA, where an Asian liquor store owner has been murdered. History intersects, because Bosch met the victime during the LA riots and, as usual, LA’s psychic history is also Bosch’s psychic history. At first it looks like a routine robbery, but of course it isn’t. The victim was paying off a Chinese triad. Bosch picks up leads and clues where others see nothing and the case acquires momentum, though not, at first, enough for Bosch. Then he gets a cell phone video from his daughter, Maddie, now living in Hong Kong with Eleanor Wish, the estranged ex. Maddie has been kidnapped.
Within hours, Bosch is on a plane to Hong Kong, an outraged American cop with a mission. Meanwhile, the prime suspect in the murder, an Asian gang member who was captured on video collecting the weekly payoff from the victim, may have to be released from custody if certain elements of the case don’t come together, leaving things literally up in the air.
Arriving in Hong Kong and assisted only by Eleanor and her new lover, a Chinese man named Sun Yee, Bosch hits the place like a volley of Cruise missiles. The first site of impact is a bizarre bazaar of a hotel where he believes Maddie may be held captive. Bodies pile up quickly and the assault goes badly. The collateral damage isn’t just limited to the locals, either, and it should be no surprise to learn that the case quickly acquires numerous new twists.
Now, at this point, I’ll back off in the interest of spoiling the rest of the plot for you, but it’s worth mentioning that Nine Dragons does seem to belong to that category of cowboyish novels, where the righteous lone wolf hero is so inflamed with his mission that he lets nothing stand in his way. He’s so ferocious in his exalted rage that he can even invade a foreign — and in this case, very foreign — land and triumph against not only powerful and deadly foes, but a culture that’s almost extraterrestrial to the average American reader.
But, you say, Connelly is such a superb writer, the calories expended in suspending our disbelief will quickly burn off. The ride will be worth it, and the superabundance of procedural details and authenticity he brings to every book will still be enough to make you feel like you yourself could pass the exam at the LAPD academy, if you cared to go into that line of work. I mean, Connelly has so much cred with the boys in blue that he does book signings at the Los Angeles Police Academy.
Once I finished this book, however, I had another take on it. This is more than Connelly having Bosch dressed up in John Wayne drag, circa The Searchers. It’s much more. It doesn’t take a genius to see this as a post-9/11 allegory. Think about it, and not just because, if you slur the word just right, Bosch sounds a little like Bush. A tough American, outraged by an attack on his beloved, invades another country, vows to let nothing stand in his way. Things don’t go well. Lots of collateral damage. And in the end, the situation turns out to be quite a bit different than he had believed. Reacting quickly and unleashing Old Testament style vengeance has unforeseen consequences. Were the villains killed in these attacks nice guys? No. But they weren’t necessarily the right enemy to go after, and in the end, the carnage he inflicts is so extensive and horrible it may in fact be beyond salvation. The worst thing of all is that he realizes that he was, in many ways, the instigator of most of it.
So, it’s time for introspection and a wise, more measured way of doing things in the future, which is kind of where we’re at now, in the age of Obama. I hope it lasts a long time. And I surely mean that for the future of Michael Connelly novels as well. Just don’t slow them down too much.

Playing the noir jazz blues at the Texas Book Festival.

Playing the noir jazz blues at the Texas Book Festival.

I’ve known Connelly since 1991. We met in LA before The Black Echo came out. At the time, I was writing my series of Martin Fender novels, and he was still a reporter on the crime beat at the LA Times. A couple of years ago, he and I did a joint appearance at the Texas Book Festival, where we were both promoting our latest products (I forgot which novel he was on, but as I am less prolific, book-wise, I know that mine was my last one, Never the Same Again: A Rock n’ Roll Gothic). Since music plays a significant role in his writing and since music has played a significant, to say the least, role in mine, I played a set of murder ballads and original tunes on my upright bass, punctuated by breaks during which he and I interviewed each other on music, life, noir, writing and other things. It was a pretty cool gig. Sure beats working.

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