City of Bones
Published by Little, Brown
393 pages, 2002
Reviewed by Tom Nolan
"In every murder is the tale of a city," quotes L.A. police detective Harry Bosch, protagonist of City of Bones, the eighth book in an outstanding series by Michael Connelly.
It hardly matters -- in fact, it's apt -- that Harry (real first name, Hieronymous: "rhymes with anonymous," he notes) doesn't know whom he's quoting. The remark is a telling echo, part of the baggage carried by a driven character haunted by his own past and the pasts of those he encounters in his grim, sad work.
Haunting Harry in City of Bones -- with an intensity that startles even his colleagues -- is a 12-year-old apparent murder victim, whose small skeleton is disinterred, after decades, from a hillside in Laurel Canyon, the sylvan residential divide between Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. Such vulnerable victims can affect other police and specialists in a similar way, observes Harry, who witnesses a forensic anthropologist examining dug-up human bones "with a look of tenderness and pity. Bosch knew the anthropologist saw the person who was once there."
Avenging such vanished persons is what gives meaning to Bosch's life, as he struggles to explain to a fellow cop: "Maybe it doesn't mean anything in the long run. Suicide terrorists hit New York and six thousand people are dead before they've finished their first cup of coffee. What does one little set of bones buried in the past matter? ... But then you get lucky and a case comes along and you say to yourself, this is the one. You just feel it. This is the one I can get back up with."
"It's called redemption, Harry," says the other cop, a female officer who also becomes important to Bosch in ways that make his case and life even more problematic.
City of Bones, like previous entries in this series (Angels Flight, A Darkness More Than Night, etc.), is two books in one: a police-procedural mystery and a novel about Harry Bosch. With care and sensitivity, the author weaves strands of Bosch's own backstory into the narrative of the ongoing investigation, with each counterpointing the other.
We learn, for instance, why Harry takes some things so personally, when he's interviewing a woman who long ago deserted her young children in order to make a clean start:
Bosch nodded in a way he hoped conveyed that he understood and agreed with her thinking at the time. It didn't matter that he did not. It didn't matter that his own mother had faced the same hardship of having a child too soon and under difficult circumstances but had clung to and protected him with a fierceness that inspired his life.
Given this knowledge, the reader can savor the significance of a moment during Bosch's later talk with a couple who spent their lives selflessly rearing many foster children; we know what prompts his quick remark and the verbal tic in it -- the "tell" that Bosch the cop watches for in quizzing others: "That's a tremendous, uh, thing you did. I admire that ..."
City of Bones is also a travel guide of sorts, a Baedeker to Bosch's contemporary Southern California: from the desert towns of Lone Pine and Palm Springs, to the lingering history on Hollywood Boulevard (where Harry likes to eat, and drink, at the famous Musso-Frank Grill), to the old canals and arched bridges of Venice (the funky beach city adjacent to Santa Monica).
And there are all sorts of marvelous vignettes and observations scattered throughout -- such as this paragraph about one of Harry's partners' method of announcing his presence at a suspect's door:
Jerry Edgar had a warrant knock that sounded like no other Bosch had ever heard. Like a gifted athlete who can focus the forces of his whole body into the swinging of a bat or the dunking of a basketball, Edgar could put his whole weight and six-foot-four frame into his knock. It was as though he could call down and concentrate all the power and fury of the righteous into the fist of his large left hand ... What it sounded like was Judgment Day.
Again, the author puts such moments and details to the service of his overall story, integrating them into his larger thematic picture of Los Angeles as the City of Bones, built in part on a prehistoric tar pit: "an ancient black hole where animals had gone to their death for centuries."
The death Harry Bosch investigates here is only 20 years old -- but that's already from another century. Harry, not unlike the anthropologists who help him, has to sift through layers to get at the truth -- layers not of earth and debris, but of lies and deceit: emotional sediment, as it were. But despite the time passed, this death still seems fresh, thanks to a story of abuse told by the bones. "This one is bad, guys," says the empathic forensics man. "Real bad ... This boy spent pretty much most of his life either healing or being hurt."
Bosch and colleagues question a man living near where the body is found, but he proves a more likely witness than suspect. Media people learn of the interview, though, and all but convict the man on the nightly news, leading to another tragedy that adds to Harry's angst.
Bosch perseveres, of course, encountering more witnesses, all-too-possible perps, different sorts of victims. There's the dead boy's sister, who hoped her brother was only missing and has stayed living in their old house all these years, "in case he comes back, you know?" And the boy's father, once a lesser lead in a 1960s TV show, now a diminished figure eking out a meager existence. And the victim's then-best friend, whose life story since adolescence is one long rap sheet.
Harry quizzes them all with the cool of a pro and the heat of a zealot. He's guided through the murk of old and new deception in part by what he calls "lost light" -- the light of those, like his case's young victim, extinguished before their time; the same light that faintly lit the Vietnam tunnels where he once did battle: "Some people said ... it was the ghosts of everybody who died in those things."
It's habitual to link any significant L.A. crime fiction writer with the great regional-genre names of the past. Michael Connelly has gotten his share of knee-jerk comparisons to Raymond Chandler. (Actually, Connelly's books, with their dark generational secrets, remind this reader more of Ross Macdonald.) But Connelly has done what Chandler (and Macdonald) did before him: taken what his predecessors did as a starting point from which to find a distinctive voice and themes of his own.
Michael Connelly has grown in accomplishment and assurance with nearly every novel. City of Bones is surely his best book yet. | April 2002
Tom Nolan, a contributing editor of January Magazine, is also the author of Ross Macdonald: A Biography and the editor of Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries by Ross Macdonald.