One-time newspaper man Michael Connelly writes his bestselling mysteries and thrillers in serviceable newspaper reporter prose---clear, strong declarative sentences without poetry, music, nuance, playfulness, or humor.
You don’t have to be able to write a graceful sentence to turn out a gripping and entertaining mystery. It just happens that the best mystery writers are also masterful prose stylists, starting with Raymond Chandler, of course. Then (and I’m just listing Americans) John D. MacDonald. Elmore Leonard. Donald E. Weslake, writing as himself and as Richard Stark. Ross Thomas. Ross McDonald. Rex Stout. Patricia Highsmith. James M. Cain. Robert B. Parker, on his best days in his prime. Walter Mosley when he’s writing for Easy Rawlins. Carl Hiaasen, although, like Parker, on his best days.
And I don’t think their knowing their way around a sentence is something separate from their ability to craft a plot, create characters, and just generally tell a ripping good yarn.
Connelly isn’t in their league, either as a stylist or a storyteller, but it’s unfair to expect him to be. It ought to be enough that he can write a sentence that takes us from point A. to point B, followed by another that takes us from Point B. to Point C. Trouble is, in his new novel, The Drop, in which Connelly brings back Harry Bosch, the Los Angeles police detective who made his reputation, it rarely seems to occur to him that he could write a sentence that short cuts from point C to point G or come up with one that takes the scenic route to point H, that we don’t need to stop at every point in between because we can guess what’s there or know what’s there from the things he’s told us along the way. More annoying, he often backs up and travels between points all over again, sometimes within a few paragraphs of having made the first trip.
In short, he alternates between telling us too much and telling us much too much.
Then he has a habit of ugly-ing up his already less than pretty sentences with unnecessary qualifications, repetitive bits of exposition, and unidiomatic formalisms and cliches that he tosses in as if they’re like nuts and cherries on top of sundaes, expected as added flavor and decoration and if he left them out readers would feel they got cheated out of their whole dessert.
People asked to do something don’t just do it, they “comply.” Something left out doors is “exposed to the elements.” Characters “first and foremost” each other in the course of casual conversation.
It doesn’t suffice it to say that at one point Connelly has his detective hero Harry Bosch actually say “suffice it to say.”
Without self-consciousness, irony, or having ever, in this book or any previous one, giving the impression he’s the kind of person who’d say “suffice it to say.”
Earlier, Harry finishes off a sentence with an unidiomatically placed “you could say.”
Describing his rocky history with a former cop now a city councilman, Harry sums up, “We had a few collisions, you could say.” Someone who grew up speaking American English would put that “you could say” at the beginning of that sentence, but the real point is that it isn’t needed at all. “We had a few collisions” isn’t something you could say. It’s precisely what---and all that--needs to be said.
This kind of needless self-correction that doesn’t correct anything anyway, along with regular elaboration of points that don’t need elaborating goes on throughout The Drop, within the dialog and the narration, with the effect of emphasizing how much one sounds like the other and how both sound awkward, stilted, tone-deaf, and phony.
Several times we’re told that a child molester was castrated in prison and then within a few paragraphs of being told it again , like so:
He got probation and county jail time for the first of two convictions but served six years out of a ten-year sentence at Corcoran State Prison for the third fall. It was there that a barbaric justice was carried out by his fellow inmates.
We get this:
He probably felt he had gotten the better side of things until he was cornered in the laundry at Corcoran, held down and castrated with a shank.
That sentence ends at Corcoran. All the following clause adds is the squirm-inducing and distracting question How do you castrate someone with a sharpened toothbrush?
In another chapter, Harry has a phone conversation with a hotel guest who has some useful information in the form of taxi cab receipt. Harry asks if the man has access to a fax machine. The man tells him there’s a fax machine in his room. Harry asks him to fax him a copy of the receipt. The man says he will be happy to fax it. Harry gives him the number to fax it to. Then he sits and waits until the copy arrives “via fax.”
Because we might have thought it was going to arrive by passenger pigeon.
And I lost count of the passages like the one in which Harry drives to his destination.
And pulls up.
And parks his car.
And turns off the motor.
And opens the car door.
And gets out.
I don’t think I’m nitpicking. Stumbling over repeated evidence that Connelly needs good editors who know their Strunk and White kept me from getting caught up in the plot and that allowed me to notice The Drop’s other, more damaging weaknesses. Minimal character development. No sense of place. (Connelly will take us to and through a neighborhood in paragraphs that read like Google Maps text directions, but he doesn’t take us into these places. We don’t meet the people who live there or get any sense of how they go about their day’s or night’s business. Harry Bosch’s Los Angeles is vague and characterless to the point of being worse than invisible. It’s generic. Harry could be operating in any Big Bad City, USA.) Narration that summarizes when it should be dramatizing. Not one but two mysteries readers are given no emotional stake in seeing solved. And a detective hero who is a self-righteous bore.
Aging and world-weary homicide detective Harry Bosch has found a way to un-retire and come back to work cold cases for the Los Angeles Police Department. The Drop Opens with a routine review of the twenty-year old rape and murder of a college student turning up DNA evidence that connects the victim to a sex offender recently released from prison, the castrated inmate mentioned above. The trouble is the creep preys on little boys and he would have been eight years old at the time the girl was killed.
Harry catches the case but just as he’s setting to work, the chief of police assigns him to another case, one that not only isn’t cold but presents Harry with a body that’s still warm, the apparent suicide of a politically connected lawyer found splattered after a fall from a hotel balcony. The lawyer’s father, that former cop turned powerful city councilman, is convinced his son was murdered, tossed to his death by persons unknown, and despite those, you could say, collisions, he’s asked the chief to put Bosch on the case, because Harry’s the best detective on the LAPD.
So Harry and his partner, a squeamish, insecure, and emotionally volatile young detective named David Chu, who resents how Harry treats him more like an assistant than like an equal partner, find themselves going back and forth chasing leads on one case then the other. Along the way Bosch demonstrates he’s above playing politics and a real “let the chips fall where they may” kind of guy, makes clear his disgust for sexual predators but surprises himself by feeling almost sorry for one, and meets and becomes smitten with Hannah Stone, a psychiatrist who is smitten right back. Unfortunately, she works with sex offenders and is in fact the castrated child molester’s therapist, which complicates things romantically and professionally.
Bosch is in his early sixties. Hannah is about fifteen years younger. But the age difference doesn’t bother him. It barely crosses his mind. It doesn’t occur to him that at his age he may not want or be able to handle the disruptions a love affair will cause. He doesn’t wonder how he will find the time to see Hannah, do his job, and raise his teenage daughter whom he already feels he’s neglecting. He doesn’t ask himself what changes in his routines and his thinking he’ll need to make and if he’s willing to make them or capable of making them. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that he may be too crotchety, too set in his ways, too tired, too cynical, too emotionally worn down, too old. He never worries he might not have the…stamina. Connelly throws in a Viagra reference, but it’s a weak practical joke Harry plays on another cop---without any sense of irony.
The only worry he has about the budding affair is that she has baggage.
It’s not him, it’s her.
And this turns out to be the case with almost every relationship in his life. It’s not Harry, it’s her or him or them.
His partner is timid and needy. His ex-partner, now a right hand to the police chief, has become too political. His lieutenant is incompetent. Other cops are are lazy or dumb or compromised ethically or morally. Everybody comes up short compared to Harry by Harry. Bosch is not un-self-critical, but he never judges himself wanting compared to others, only in comparison to idealized self.
He’s a sanctimonious prig.
The exception is his fifteen year old daughter Maddie, but she doesn’t count because she’s such a fantasy, an intellectual feminist man’s dream of a daughter. Maddie is smart, sassy, active, independent, ambitious, impossibly well-adjusted, and at an age when most high school girls are beginning to come into their own sexually, the only man in her life is her daddy and she wants to be just like him when she grows up. Maddie appears more often in the book than any of the suspects in either of Harry’s cases, but her basic function is to tell us over and over again that, despite Harry’s worries and self-doubts, he’s a truly wonderful guy.
It’s been a long time since I read any other novels in the Bosch series but I don’t remember Harry Bosch being a wonderful guy.
In fact, I thought the point was that he wasn’t a wonderful guy, and he was a good cop because he wasn’t wonderful---he was good at his job because being good at a job was all he had to hold onto.
Oh well. People change. Bosch seems to have changed for what I guess is the better. I just don’t see it as an improvement.
Bosch, the child of a murdered mother, a Vietnam vet who apparently arrived in country with PTSD---Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder---was an angry guy. But in The Drop he’s become a Last Angry Man and, consequently, boring in the way the self-congratulatory noble can be.
Finally, though, when all else fails, a detective novel stands or falls on the crime the detective hero has to solve. There are two crimes in The Drop but neither one grips. We’re shut out of the story behind the suicide (or was it murder?) because Harry is shut out of it. It’s really a domestic tragedy that Harry can play no part in because it’s not his family, but it’s also a political melodrama that unfolds almost entirely out of Harry’s sight or even awareness because his job keeps him out of the rooms where the politicians wheel and deal and Harry makes it a point of pride to avoid those rooms anyway.
The second crime is potentially more involving because it confronts Harry and therefore us directly with the question of what turns a person into a monster. But then instead of exploring the question by showing the transformation of a person into a monster Harry (and we) might then identify or sympathize with, Connelly goes and introduces a ready-made monster for us to loathe, fear, and despise on sight, no discomfiting questions about the nature of good and evil asked. Harry is given a serial killer to track down before he strikes again whom he can chase with a clear conscience, untroubled by any challenges to his moral prejudices or self-regard.
I don’t know why every writer of TV shows, movies, and hasn’t figured out it out yet, but serial killers are boring villains.
Dexter is a hero.