Sketched in detail

A police procedural is a delicately tuned machine. By definition, it’s slotted into a very rigid genre — a real-world crime as investigated and solved by a real-world police department. Within this framework, there are two dials that the writer can tune: the interestingness of the crime itself, and the appeal of the investigative characters. Michael Connelly is an old hand at this game, famous for his police detective Harry Bosch who specialises in “dead” cases. In his last few novels, Connelly has struggled to bring out interesting facets to Bosch to balance the cases themselves.

Connelly does the logical thing in his new book, The Late Show - he introduces a new leading character. Renée Ballard is a somewhat different kind of policewoman. She’s a single Hawaiian-native homeless-by-choice woman who sleeps in a tent by the beach with her dog. Her favourite sports are surfing and paddling. And because she spoke out against a sexually predatory boss a few years ago, she’s condemned to work on the night shift (“the late show”) as punishment by him.There’s one important thing Ballard has in common with Bosch: the urge to see cases through to the end. So the night shift is even more of a punishment for her - the night shift cops are supposed to take care of the initial response to crimes, and then hand it over to the day shift folks to close out on. This has been disturbing her for a while, so when she gets a case about a transsexual woman battered to within an inch of her life, she decides to pursue it through, instead of handing it over to the day shift as she’s supposed to. The only clue that she seems to have is the phrase “upside-down house”, uttered by the victim before she became unconscious. And the fact that an unusual weapon was used on her.

The same night, she’s an early responder to another case of a shooting in a restaurant. One of the victims is a waitress, whom no one else seems to care about. Once again, Ballard is spurred into investigating this crime. But this time, there seems an actual effort to keep her away from the investigation — is it just because she’s a woman? Or, is it because the lead detective for the investigation is the same man who she’d filed a complaint about?

Ballard’s investigation underlines that for a dedicated cop, work isn’t over even when the shift is over. She continues to track down clues over weekends, off time, by using other logins to access the police computers, using aliases, and so on. In some sense, the machinery of the police force works against her, instead of with her, here. Even her team partner is unwilling to stick his neck out to chase the leads with her. So even within the framework of the procedural, Connelly creates a bit of a maverick trying to solve cases to her own satisfaction.

That the world deals a bad hand for women is underlined multiple times in this book. In her career as a police officer, Ballard faces multiple setbacks and the casual dismissal of her requests by male officers. Her complaint against her higher-ups is dismissed for lack of supporting evidence. In the cases she takes on, female victims are given nowhere near as much importance as men. In her investigations, she faces indifference, not to mention threats (and worse) of assault. Connelly makes sure we see how unfair the world is for Ballard, and women in general, while also portraying her as empowered, understanding of the situation, and willing to do what it takes to get her way.

In fact, Ballard is such a detailed character and has so much personal history and psyche explored in this book that Connelly is going to be hard-pressed to come up with suitably feminist character arcs for her as the series progresses.

Connelly’s language, as always, is straightforward and clean, relying on the details of the scene to set up the tension. This makes his books fast and intense reads, when done right. Indian readers are likely to find the Indian-origin character names hilarious — one of the forensic examiners is Dr Jayalalitha Panneerselvam, and a call-centre responder in Mumbai is Khan, Irfan Khan. And there’s a sly reference to Bosch as a retired colleague.

Overall, this is one of Connelly’s better books in recent times, and we are looking forward to more instalments in the series.

 

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