Published by Little, Brown and Company
393 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Angels of Destruction
Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
Michael Connelly's latest book, Angels Flight, takes its name from a Los Angeles historical landmark: a short funicular railroad that serves the downtown business district. Climbing Bunker Hill from the Central Market Plaza to California Plaza, it's a pretty brief flight, with no angels in evidence. Thus it's the perfect symbol for this book about hate, lust and murder in LA: Do what you want, go where you will, but you won't get far. This city will catch up with you.
Angels Flight is the sixth book Connelly has written about Los Angeles police detective Hieronymous ("Harry") Bosch -- and it's also the most ambitious. While the previous Bosch books used the Chandleresque setting as a backdrop, this time Connelly turns an uneasy eye on the city itself, a sprawling, diverse patchwork of communities that still reverberate from the 1992 riots that followed the police beating of black motorist Rodney King.
Bosch, an LA native and career cop, is a shrewd, modest, and often lonely man whose investigative talents are widely acknowledged but hardly prized. Because many of his cases have exposed corruption in the police department, he has few friends in the upper echelons of the LAPD. So, in Angels Flight, Bosch is understandably wary when the Machiavellian deputy chief gives him the thankless assignment of investigating the murder of the department's biggest political enemy: Howard Elias, an African-American civil-rights litigator whose police brutality lawsuits have cost the city millions of dollars.
Elias is found shot to death on the eve of jury selection in a $10-million suit he had predicted would bring him his biggest victory yet. Michael Harris, a young black man who worked at a car wash, suffered a punctured eardrum during police interrogation on a murder charge. Acquitted after a jury trial, Harris was left partially deaf and deeply embittered -- the ideal Elias client.
While many authors use murder victims as mere props, Connelly describes Elias so well that you think you've heard his voice -- surely a thunderous one -- in previous pages:
In his late-night television "infomercials" and frequent "impromptu" but cleverly orchestrated press conferences on the steps of the U.S. District Courthouse, Elias always cast himself as a watchdog, a lone voice crying out against abuses of a fascist and racist paramilitary organization known as the LAPD. To his critics -- and they ran from the rank and file of the LAPD to the offices of the city and district attorneys -- Elias was a racist himself, a loose cannon who helped widen the fractures in an already divided city. To these detractors he was the scum of the legal system, a courtroom magician who could reach into the deck at any place and still pull out the race card.
Leaving his office late one night, Elias boards the last run of the Angels Flight line to reach the upscale high-rise where he often stayed while busy in town with a trial. But he never makes it to his apartment. When the operator of Angels Flight prepares to shut down the railroad at 11, he finds the attorney's body.
Bosch's former squad, the elite homicide unit, is called to the scene of the shooting. But they're pulled off as soon as the body is identified. Some of them are defendants in the upcoming police brutality case and have a clear conflict of interest, if not a motive. The investigative team Bosch leads in the nearby Hollywood Division is summoned, instead -- ostensibly because they've never been sued by Elias, but more likely for public relations reasons: The attorney's death is sure to trigger racial unrest in the community, and Bosch's fellow detectives, Jerry Edgar and Kizmin Rider, are both black.
Bosch's first challenge is to get the homicide detectives to return the dead lawyer's wallet and watch, which he guesses -- correctly -- they have taken to make it appear that robbery was the murder motive. His second challenge is to find out who sent Elias an anonymous one-line letter reading, "he knows you know." Third, Bosch must find out why his longtime foes on the department's internal affairs team have been assigned to "help" him with the Elias investigation. And he'd also like to know why Elias had the unlisted home number of Carla Entrenkin, the police department inspector general, in his address book -- and a clearly personal message from her on his answering machine.
As the story progresses Connelly adds layer upon layer of suspense and suspicion, which he always does so well, then ups the ante when Bosch conducts a decidedly hostile interview with Elias' client, Michael Harris. Harris had been acquitted of charges that he murdered Stacey Kincaid, an angelic 12-year-old girl and a member of one of the city's most prominent business families. Harris had maintained his innocence throughout, though many attributed his acquittal to backlash against the racist attitudes expressed during the trial by the girl's wealthy family. Harris boasts to Bosch that Elias had expected not only to win the police brutality suit; he had planned to shock the city by revealing the identity of the little girl's real killer. Only during their interview does Harris realize that this exculpatory information may have vanished with the lawyer's death. And Bosch realizes it was probably what motivated Elias' murder.
Sure that the two cases are linked, Bosch ignores ominous warnings from the department brass and reopens the Kincaid investigation. More anonymous notes found in Elias' records lead Bosch and his team to an Internet porn site and to the bondage studio of one Mistress Regina ("a sad caricature or a depressing male fantasy"). Meanwhile, racial unrest, political shenanigans, death threats against Bosch, and leaks to the media from someone in the police department make it clear that this case will soon be ripped out of Bosch's control.
To further complicate matters for Bosch, his marriage seems about to end. Eleanor Wish (the old flame with whom he was reunited at the end of the last Bosch novel, Trunk Music) has decided to leave him after less than a year of marriage. While Eleanor has only a minor role in Angels Flight, their breaking up is a particularly bitter variation on the theme of loss that reverberates throughout this book. At one point deep in the novel, Bosch's professional and personal struggles intertwine as he falls into an exhausted sleep:
In a few minutes he was gone, deep into a dream in which he was riding Angels Flight up the tracks to the top of the hill. As the other car came down and passed, he looked in the windows and saw Eleanor sitting alone. She wasn't looking back at him.
For all the graphic descriptions of Internet porn and police brutality, Angels Flight is a cerebral book, full of musings and mullings and troubled dreams. Bosch's most significant discoveries are based on hunches, perception, investigation, and insight. To profound effect, Connelly lets the reader stay right at Bosch's side, seeing what he sees, hearing what he hears, realizing what he realizes, and sharing with him throughout an overwhelming knowledge that something terrible will happen. (Which, of course, it does: Angels Flight ends with a scene of apocalyptic rage and redemption that is simply begging for a big, wide screen and a soundtrack.)
For most of us, Angels Flight is about as close as we'll get, or want to get, to stalking a killer or being stalked ourselves. Harry Bosch gets away, of course, but he's never unscathed. Nor are we. With each new book in this resonant series, Connelly leaves a deeper impression. | January 1999
KAREN G. ANDERSON writes regularly about crime fiction for January Magazine.
You can read Karen Anderson's interview with Michael Connelly: also in January Magazine.