The Black Box – Michael Connelly

That’s the mantra by which Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch lives his role as a homicide detective. He’s returned from retirement to join the Cold Case Unit (or Open Unsolved, as it’s officially known) and in this book is re-investigating a murder for which he was, co-incidentally, the first homicide officer on the scene, along with his old partner Jerry Edgar. They were unable to launch a proper investigation as it was 1992, and South Central LA was the scene of rioting, after four police officers accused of beating suspect Rodney King had been acquitted. Bizarrely, the victim was in fact a Danish journalist, Anneke Jespersen. But why was she alone in such a dangerous area? Was she reporting on the riots?

With the police overwhelmed and the city in a state of turmoil, the National Guard had been called in in an attempt to keep the peace, and it is they who have come across the body and secured the scene. Jerry christened the victim “Snow White”, as it was so unexpected to have a white victim amidst the riots. Harry and Jerry were only able to do a cursory scene examination, where they found a bullet casing, but nothing else, before being called to the next murder scene. Harry’s last words to Anneke’s corpse were, “I’m sorry”. Her cameras were missing, probably stolen. He knew the likelihood of solving this murder was extremely slim.

Fast forward 20 years, and Bosch re-opens the case in his role as a cold case investigator. He gets a match on the only piece of evidence retrieved at the scene, with the help of a computer database collated by the ATF. It turns out that the same gun had been used in two related gang murders in the 20 years since Anneke’s death. One of the gang members, conveniently, lived in the house next to where her body was found. This, and an unusual telephone call on the 10th anniversary of the murder asking if it had been solved, noted in the Murder Book, which contains all the investigation details to date, set Bosch off on an unusual investigative path – one which was the opposite of his original suspicions. He also finds out that Anneke hadn’t been in the US on holiday, and didn’t divert to LA just to report on the riots – her brother in Denmark maintains that her entire trip to the US was part of a journalism lead she was pursuing. Amongst her belongings, Bosch notes that there is no room key. Was she investigating a story which was going to make waves for someone, with the riots providing them with an ideal opportunity to shut her up, and steal her notes? As part of his investigation, Bosch also searches through all Anneke’s previous journalistic output, in order to get to know his victim – and on the off chance there is a clue to what story she was pursuing in the States.

Along the way, as is usual for Bosch, he creates waves among his superiors. They are reluctant to see this case solved, as, if it turns out to be the only one from the time of the riots to result in a conviction, it will look to the black community that the murder of a white woman was given extra consideration and resources. He is encouraged to string out the investigation beyond the 20th anniversary of the riots. This, as Connelly fans know well, is not how Bosch works. He has a habit of bumping heads with the top brass, and this book is no exception. In an attempt to slow him down, he is put under investigation after a spurious complaint – but simply investigates the murder in his own time.

Fans of the series will also be aware that Bosch’s daughter, Maddie, has been living with him since the death of her mother. She is now 16, and intent on a career in law enforcement – and I can’t help wondering if she will end up working with her father, or, more likely, the series will move focus to her, with a retired Bosch acting as her mentor.

As ever with Michael Connelly, he cleverly uses the book’s title to mean different things: in this case, the “black box” refers to the clue which opens up an investigation, like the one which reveals why an aeroplane crashes. It also refers to the box which the gang unit he consults use to keep handwritten intelligence on gang members, which gives Bosch a crucial lead when he re-opens the case. Finally, near the end of the book, Bosch refers to the coffin which he is convinced he will find himself in as a “black box”. He has finally met his match in this book, and the people who want to keep him quiet are very powerful. Plus, being Bosch, he has headed off alone in his investigations, and has no partner for back-up. How can he possibly get out of this one?

Michael Connelly is an author who’s an “auto buy” for me. I’ve read all the Bosch books (this is the nineteenth), and most of the Mickey Haller ones (Bosch’s half-brother lawyer.) He’s an incredibly reliable author, like his peers James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, and George Pelecanos. If you’re a crime fiction fan, and haven’t read Michael Connelly – why not? I’d advise starting with the earlier books, but they don’t really have to be read in order. It also might be worth taking a peek at the Amazon Prime series, Bosch, which goes online on February 13th (I’ll probably get the free 30 day trial, and binge watch them!) However you sample him, though, Michael Connelly is the cream of the American crime fiction crop.

10 thoughts on “The Black Box – Michael Connelly

  1. So Glad you’ve done a Connelly novel!! He is one of my top authors, too. It’s not often is it that you find an author who’s so consistently good 🙂

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  2. Thanks, Margot – yes, his plotting is absolutely top notch, isn’t it? It’s hard to believe it’s taken so long to develop his books into a TV series or film. I don’t know what I’ll do if he retires! (Perhaps he’ll work for Mickey as an investigator??) I’ll have to see Bosch, somehow, on Amazon Prime, as it looks great.

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  3. I’ve never read this author. Clever that he used this real event, and I found this on Wikipedia:
    “44 dead bodies were still being identified by the coroner using fingerprints, driver’s license, or dental records.”
    Nasty.
    I was driving from S. Cal to N. Cal the night of the riots and it was eerie to pass through towns that were completely shut down. All the petrol stations on my route were closed and locked up.

    I have to admit that I am fascinated with the whole cold case idea especially since DNA has now solved so many horrendous crimes.

    Thanks for the tip on Bosch. I’ll check Amazon US.

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    • That’s terrible (the 44 bodies bit.) I recall in the book it mentioned the police were totally unprepared for the violence, when you’d imagine they’d have had a contingency plan in case there was an acquittal and it kicked off…I’m really intrigued by Cold Case stuff too – there have been a few high-profile trials in Scotland using developments in DNA testing. One of those convicted – a man called Angus Sinclair – is a suspect in several other unsolved murders, but sadly the possessions of these victims were either lost, or stored poorly. I rather like the idea of people who think they’ve got away with murder now constantly on edge, waiting for the police to come and knock on their door…There’s also the flip side, where innocent people have been exonerated thanks to DNA. Connelly was previously a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and clearly that work has meant he knows the city really well. When it comes to solidly plotted, commercial crime fiction (and I don’t use the term commercial disparagingly here), he really is the best.

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      • I THINK the first I read was Trunk Music, which is apparently the fifth in the series, and I loved it so much I went out and got the first four – in order, they are The Black Echo, The Black Ice, The Concrete Blonde, and The Last Coyote. So, really, I think you’d be safe starting with any of these five. The earlier books mention Bosch’s time in Vietnam, as a “tunnel rat” (I went out and bought a book about tunnel rats to find out more – what a horrendous job!) and the guilt he feels about his actions in an unjust war. Also, his mother was a prostitute and was murdered, which may be why he’s so driven and feels so compelled to bring killers to justice. Any of these early books (which I really should revisit, as it’s been nearly 20 years since I read them!) will give you a flavour of Bosch, and the darkness and complexity of the murders he works on. They may also be easily available second-hand. Although, as apparently the TV series is an amalgamation of the first three books, there might be reissues of them out there soon as a TV tie-in. Do let me know what you think if you do get round to reading any, or watching the TV series. I wish it was on a more accessible platform than Amazon Prime, though.

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  4. I’m ashamed to say this is an author I haven’t read and yet I know I really should do! Your review is excellent and we had spotted that it was being added to Amazon Instant Video so I may start there before picking up one of the earlier books – it must nearly be time for our book sale on the island and I’m sure there will be a copy there!

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    • Ha ha – good thinking! Yes, one good thing about having a huge back catalogue is that they’re easy to pick up in second hand sales! I’ve noticed you definitely veer more towards British/European crime fiction. I like either US or Europe, depending on my mood, but lots of people have a preference for one or the other. Thanks Cleo. (Btw, finally started the first Ruth Galloway – fabulous! Can’t believe I’ve left it so long!)

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    • Yes – The Lincoln Lawyer, The Brass Verdict, and The Reversal. I’ve got one called The Fifth Witness here too, which I think is one. Bosch often pops up briefly in them. The film of The Lincoln Lawyer was okay, too. I like them also, but I’m never as desperate to get my hands on them as I am with a Bosch. I think the only author I’ve been reading for the same length of time is Jonathan Kellerman (and Ian Rankin just after them.) I’ve given up on Patricia Cornwell, though. Last couple I read were dreadful. Time to pull the plug on Dr Kay Scarpetta. Thing is, people still buy her books by the thousand! I’ve stopped reading Grisham, too.

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