Crime writer Michael Connelly builds in the fear factor

If you have ever found yourself deep into one of Michael Connelly's 22 thrillers, turning the pages way past the time you should have turned out the light, you might have wondered how he transforms books that begin as seemingly controlled police procedurals or courtroom dramas into something that scares the bejesus out of you.

"You have to write about what scares you," Connelly says.

Apparently what scares Connelly scares a lot of other people, too. His books regularly debut on the bestseller lists, have been translated into 35 languages and have won every major award in their genre.

In March, one of them, The Lincoln Lawyer, will be released as a film starring Matthew McConaughey. Talking about it recently over burgers and fries (lots of ketchup for both) at El Cap in St. Petersburg, Connelly, who lives in the Tampa Bay area, says he thinks the scriptwriters "really nailed it." As for McConaughey as the title character: "I thought he'd make a good Mickey when I saw him in Tropic Thunder."

In The Lincoln Lawyer and The Brass Verdict, Connelly made Mickey Haller a crack defense lawyer. So why shape his new novel, The Reversal, around a case in which Haller is appointed to be a prosecutor?

"It grew out of my interest in the longevity of that character, in keeping him grounded in reality," Connelly says.

He found himself facing what he calls the unreality of people's expectations about lawyers in fiction and other forms of entertainment. "They're always defending a guy who's innocent. In the real world, some defense lawyers never have an innocent client in their whole career."

So, rather than exceed Haller's quota of innocent clients, The Reversal kicks off with a DNA test that might exonerate a man convicted 24 years earlier of murdering a 12-year-old girl. Or it might not — and it's Haller's job to retry him.

"It's in vogue in criminal justice to use DNA tests to free the innocent, and that's fantastic," Connelly says. "But the writer's job is to turn conventions upside down."

Haller's appointment as a prosecutor also allowed Connelly to structure a book that gives equal time to his best-known series character, Los Angeles police Detective Harry Bosch. Bosch and Haller have met in Connelly's pages before — they're half brothers — but in The Reversal they narrate alternate chapters as Bosch works as the investigator for Haller's prosecution.

"I wanted to see if I could write a book that's hard to define — is it a police procedural or a courtroom drama? And I also wanted to show how different these guys are."

Alternating their chapters, he says, allowed him to develop the plot in linear fashion, so readers follow the investigation and trial as they develop. "I guess with an e-book you could split them up into separate stories, but I'm not sure how that would work."

He uses first-person narration for Haller's chapters, which is "more intimate for the reader," and third-person for Bosch's.

Yet longtime fans may feel they know much more about Bosch, and not just because he has been the protagonist of 14 novels.

Bosch is a compelling character in part because readers know a lot about his past: the murder of his mother when he was a boy, his time in foster homes, his military service as a "tunnel rat" in Vietnam, his checkered romantic history, the unsolved cases that haunt him.

"I think Harry is a natural-born cold case detective because of his mother's murder," Connelly says. Weaving his past into the books is easier because "places spark memories when he's out on a case. He has more contemplative moments."

Haller, on the other hand, is "very present tense." Taking readers back into his past is more difficult. "In first person, that's harder to do. And he's always in a courtroom. There's no space in a trial for introspection."

As the publication date for The Reversal approached, Connelly was finishing his next book, a process he likens to "spinning plates." The Fifth Witness, to be published in April, will be a Haller book; he's done being a prosecutor, Connelly says, but won't be going back to criminal defense either.

"With the down economy, public defenders are overburdened, and there are fewer customers for defense lawyers," Connelly says. A former crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers, he's ripping Haller's new line of work from the headlines: foreclosures. "Of course, it leads him into a criminal thing."

Connelly is hoping to have "bookend" novels next year, the second one a Bosch book. Because he has allowed the character to age in real time, Bosch is facing retirement in just a few years, and the author feels he still has stories left to tell about him.

Most of Connelly's books are set in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years and still spends much of his time. He and his family have lived in the bay area for almost a decade, but, he says, "I don't feel moved to write about it" — although a couple of the lawyers who serve as inspirations for Haller are friends who live here.

Although Bosch and Haller are very different characters, one thing they have in common that serves a pivotal role in The Reversal is fatherhood. In this book as in Connelly's last one, Nine Dragons, Bosch's young daughter, Maddie, is threatened with serious danger because of his work. This time, the same is true for Haller's daughter, Hayley.

Both girls are 14, about the same age as Connelly's daughter. Is that an example of writing about what scares you? "To get a connection to your characters," he says, "you have to put them in a situation that you can feel yourself.

"And I wanted to put them in a situation where they would feel there were no rules — especially Bosch."

The Reversal

By Michael Connelly

Little, Brown, 389 pages, $27.99

Crime writer Michael Connelly builds in the fear factor 10/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 16, 2010 5:30am]

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