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Review: In Michael Connelly's '9 Dragons,' things get personal for Bosch — in Hong Kong

Harry Bosch in Hong Kong?

Writers of crime fiction take a risk when they move a series character out of his or her native habitat. This literary genre tends to tie protagonist to setting in complex ways — it's tough to imagine James W. Hall's Thorn outside South Florida, or Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski outside Chicago, or James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux outside southern Louisiana. (Burke did pull off a Montana trip for Dave in Swan Peak last year, although Louisiana followed him there.)

That's especially true of the long line of tough but idealistic detectives to operate in and around Los Angeles, a line that includes such icons as Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer and Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins.

The most compelling (and one of the best selling) contemporary avatars is Harry Bosch, the LAPD homicide detective who is the main character in 15 of Michael Connelly's 21 novels. Connelly, a longtime Los Angeles resident (he now lives in the Tampa Bay area) and former crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, knows the territory and uses that knowledge to lend the Bosch books rich detail and atmosphere.

His splendid new novel 9 Dragons begins there, in a riot-scarred South L.A. neighborhood, where Bosch and his partner, Ignacio Ferras, are sent to investigate the shooting death of a liquor store owner. What first looks like one more robbery gone wrong quickly takes on larger implications: John Li, the owner of Fortune Liquors, was Chinese and had long paid protection money to one of the Chinese triads, but with business down may have been running late on his payments.

The triads are organized crime groups, centuries old in China and imported to this country with the legions of Chinese immigrants brought here to build railroads in the 19th century. Bosch and Ferras begin working with a detective from the Asian Gang Unit, David Chu, because he can act as an interpreter and knows the triads' methods and members.

Bosch is unhappy with how the investigation develops — Ferras is still street-shy after being shot two years before, and Chu ambitiously oversteps his authority — but soon enough they have a suspect, whom they grab just before he gets to the airport, presumably to return to Hong Kong.

Fans of the Bosch books know Harry has a tie to that city. His daughter, Madeline, lives there with her mother, Eleanor Wish. Eleanor is a former FBI agent and former love of Harry's; he didn't know they had a daughter together until Maddie was 5.

Now Eleanor is a professional poker player employed by a Hong Kong casino, which provides her with a luxury apartment, a helicopter ride to work each day and a very devoted bodyguard.

Bosch has struggled to build a relationship with his daughter, no easy feat from the other side of the Pacific. But as 9 Dragons begins he feels pretty good about it; several times a year, she visits him in Los Angeles or he goes to Hong Kong. And tech-savvy Maddie, now 13, has taught him how to communicate when they're apart: e-mail, texting, photos and video via their matching cell phones.

One of those videos turns the whole Li case — and Bosch's world — upside down.

Bosch is always a bulldog when he's locked onto a case, but now this one is personal. "All his life Harry Bosch believed he had a mission. And to carry out that mission he needed to be bulletproof," Connelly writes. "All of that changed on the day he was introduced to the daughter he didn't know he had. In that moment he knew he was both saved and lost."

Once it seems the triad in Hong Kong has knowledge of his investigation and means to harm those he loves, the urgency of Bosch's mission drives 9 Dragons at high velocity. Unwilling to leave the crime depicted on the video in the hands of the Hong Kong police — Bosch knows a little something about corrupt police departments — he boards a plane with nothing but his cell phone and an envelope of cash.

Connelly deploys some high-tech investigative techniques in the book; an analysis of the video helps Bosch determine that he must pursue his investigation in the Hong Kong neighborhood called Kowloon, Chinese for the nine dragons of the title. And a cutting-edge technique for pulling a fingerprint off a used shell casing plays a crucial part in solving Li's murder.

But the center of the book is a breathless, bloody quest through a city Bosch barely knows, a teeming metropolis of skyscrapers and high finance in the midst of celebrating the ancient Festival of Hungry Ghosts. It's a foray outside his usual haunts that works, and one that takes him into new emotional territory as well.

But the implications of the two cases — the Hong Kong crimes and Li's murder — inevitably circle back to Los Angeles and play out in ways that surprise both the reader and Bosch right to the last page.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

9 Dragons

By Michael Connelly

Little, Brown, 374 pages, $27.99

Review: In Michael Connelly's '9 Dragons,' things get personal for Bosch — in Hong Kong 10/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2009 4:30am]

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