Michael Connelly’s Edgar Award: The Birth of Bosch
At the 1993 Edgar Awards banquet, the best first novel award went to a new author named Michael Connelly, whose debut Harry Bosch novel The Black Echo had been published the previous year. The promise of that first book has clearly been fulfilled, with Connelly going on to become one of the most prolific and successful crime writers working today.
There’s a lot about The Black Echo that calls back to classic crime novels, but it has a contemporary energy, and depicts an L. A. that feels so atmospheric and detailed that it’s hard to believe Connelly hasn’t lived there all his life. (In fact, he was born in Philadelphia and spent his teenage years and early career in Florida.) Bosch is a recognizable character in the world of police stories; he’s a chain-smoking loner, a hardened and cynical detective who frequently infuriates his superiors, doesn’t blink when things get violent, and never gives up on a case, even when he’s kicked off it. Bosch is also a person without a history, and someone who doesn’t really belong to any community, meaning that he fits right in in Los Angeles. Bosch doesn’t know who his father is; his mother, who was probably a prostitute, died when he was young and he spent his childhood in orphanages and foster homes, making few connections with anyone. Hard details about his past don’t really get mentioned until we hear about his service in Vietnam, where he joined a brotherhood of ‘tunnel rats,’ soldiers who did what sounds like some of the most psychological-trauma-inducing work of the war–clearing and demolishing booby-trapped tunnels used by the Viet Cong.
As an aside, there are several superficial similarities between The Black Echo and Ian Rankin’s first Inspector Rebus novel Knots and Crosses, which came out in 1987. Both have the familiar lone-wolf-who-doesn’t-play-well-with-others detectives—both of whom have military backgrounds—and the stories in each case relate to something that happened during their respective military services, but that’s honestly about it. Connelly’s first book is also somewhat reminiscent of another debut book that came out in 1994, Dennis Lehane’s A Drink Before the War, in that both titles use crime fiction set-pieces to tell a more contemporary sort of story, and both have a powerful sense of place. They’re not the same book at all, but you can kind of tell they were written around the same time.
The Black Echo opens with Bosch being called to junk-strewn area near a reservoir, where the cops have been led to a body. Bosch soon sees that the corpse was staged to look like an overdose case, but was likely murdered—and he also knows the dead person as a fellow tunnel rat from Vietnam named Billy Meadows. Thus begins Bosch’s introductory case, a story that presents the detective to readers and establishes his environment.
While his fellow cops want to file this death away as another junkie dying from his last score, Bosch soon links Meadows to the pawning of an expensive bracelet stolen from a bank a year prior. This sends Bosch to the FBI, who investigated that previous break-in. Bosch is paired with FBI agent Eleanor Wish, and they continue the investigation into Meadows’ murder and his links to the robbery. While that’s going on, a more intimate relationship between Bosch and Wish starts to form.
As Bosch and Wish crisscross the city piecing together Meadows’ story, Connelly dives into that familiar contradiction of Los Angeles, a place where the streets and highways are perpetually gridlocked yet there never seems to be anyone around; like the empty hillside where Meadows’ body turned up, L. A. is a patchwork of vacant lots, collapsed pre-fab buildings, empty late-night eateries, back alleys where sordid pick-ups take place, and understaffed law enforcement offices. Even the glamorous, populated parts of the city sit atop a vast network of cavernous sewers and drainage tunnels, a kind of metaphor that shapes the book.
Much of the novel leans toward the “police procedural” end of the crime fiction spectrum, and less toward the “mystery” end; early on, Bosch identifies who the bad guys are—there’s the police chief who doesn’t use contractions when he talks (a dead giveaway), and the FBI Special Agent who fussily addresses people using their titles (“Mr. Gearson,” “Captain Orozco”), and who frequently calls Bosch “Detective,” even though he knows his name. Pretty dang obvious, especially contrasted with the dark-horse cop who doesn’t have time for anyone’s bullshit.
If there is one flaw to the book, it’s that the procedures of the police are related a little too exactly. We get a lot of details about how partners negotiate who does what on a case, which FBI assignments are considered better than others, how cops rely on various computer systems and databases, what the deal is with paperwork and reports that other cops frequently complain about (but not Bosch), and so forth. It never becomes tedious, and it works to establish Connelly as a writer who knows this world far better than most of us civilians, but it slows the story down in a couple of places.
But The Black Echo offers a lot more beyond the reportage of police work, and as readers round the bend to the final part of Bosch’s adventure, the mystery aspect becomes much stronger. How is it possible that Bosch was called to investigate the death of someone he happened to have met over twenty years prior on a different continent? If you want to chalk that one up to coincidence, then you don’t know how any policeman protagonist’s mind works, much less Bosch’s.
Adjustments have been made to Bosch over the years, as the character and his city have evolved. For one thing, he no longer sports a mustache, that once-standard identifying trait of all veteran cops. His past has been filled in a little more, and on the TV series his military service has been updated to the Gulf War. Connelly has tackled such topics as the Los Angeles Riots and the police department opening up to LGBTQ officers in later books. But what may work so well about Bosch is that he basically fits the mold; he’s a close cousin of several other thick-skinned knights-errant policemen, one brought to fuller life and given a deeper relationship with his city.