Old detectives never die

Crime fiction is relished by most readers, especially hard-boiled detective thrillers set in the city of the angels, Los Angeles (LA), and its even more famous precinct of Hollywood.

Take the doyen of American crime fiction, Raymond Chandler, who started writing tough detective fiction set in LA at the age of 44, after being sacked as a
corporate executive at the height of Great Depression. One of Chandler’s best-known disciples is Michael Connelly, who decided that he would write crime fiction after watching, at the age of 17, Robert Altman’s movie-version of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye.

While drawing on his experience of covering the LA crime beat to try his hand at fiction, Connelly identified so much with Chandler’s detective that he once even rented a flat in the High Tower Apartments where Philip Marlowe stays during one of his investigations.

That the apartment was not air-conditioned did not bother Connelly, whose uncompromising work ethic presumably demanded that he sweat it out to become the next great writer of American detective fiction. Today, some 20 years after Connelly’s first novel was published in 1992, his detective Harry Bosch has become so popular that his books are estimated to have sold 45 million copies in 39 languages.

Lost Light is the ninth Harry Bosch book where, after taking voluntary retirement from the Los Angeles Police Department, he sets out to crack an unsolved homicide case from which he was removed during his days with the force.

And so, Bosch revisits the office cubicle where the young Hollywood production assistant Angella Benton was strangled on May 16, 1999, in what seemed to be a case of sexual assault. However, just three days later, on May 19, 1999, a sum of two million dollars was stolen by four masked men from the set of a Hollywood studio, and the security officer of the bank who had transported the money was shot dead. Ironically, Benton’s
company was shooting a movie where two million dollars are stolen. Bosch is now investigating all this four years later when the world has changed, thanks to 9/11. Bosch has to tackle not just apathy but the FBI, which claims that the entire affair has a national-security angle since one of the stolen notes was found in the possession of a detained terrorist.

Bosch’s integrity is the only constant in an America where everyone else is only too willing to play along with the FBI. Bosch is warned that he can disappear if he gets in the way since he no longer wears the police badge which gave him immunity. Raymond Chandler’s forte was not just the plot but the sheer quality of his writing which was reflected in his scenic description of an America in transition during the Great Depression and its aftermath. It is a quality which is there in Connelly’s vivid description of LA and its universally famous precinct: “Hollywood could only hold its mystique in darkness.

In sunlight, the curtain comes up and the intrigue is gone, replaced by a sense of hidden danger. You build a city in the desert, water it with false hopes and false idols, and eventually this is what happens. The desert reclaims it, turns it arid, and leaves it barren. Human tumbleweeds drift across its streets, predators hide in the rocks.”

“Old soldiers never die,” the legendary American general Douglas MacArthur once said. It could likewise be said of Connelly’s protagonist that “old detectives never die. They just Bosch on, regardless.”

Bosch has earned his place in the pantheon of America’s legendary fictional crime investigators, along with Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. The story goes that Chandler wrote The Long Goodbye at a time of great personal stress when his wife Cissy was dying. The Long Goodbye is rated as not just superlative crime fiction but as a literary classic where a hard-boiled detective thriller is used as a vehicle for social criticism. Connelly is, likewise, well on his way to acquiring a literary reputation transcending that of a writer of crime fiction.

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