A few weeks ago, a friend who's an avid crime fiction fan asked if I had read Michael Connelly's new book, The Late Show, yet. He was worried that Connelly might be spreading himself thin by introducing a new main character instead of writing another novel about Harry Bosch or Mickey Haller.
Oh, please do not worry, Connelly fans. If anything, the invention of Los Angeles Police Detective Renée Ballard has given him a big juicy shot of energy.
Not that he was lacking that quality. The Late Show is Connelly's 30th novel in 25 years, and for the last several of those years he has been deeply involved in the writing and production of the hit Amazon TV series Bosch, based on his bestselling books about the LAPD detective and about to begin filming its fourth season.
With more than 60 million copies of his books in print, the Tampa resident is one of the most successful crime fiction writers on the planet. He has written 19 Bosch books, five about Haller and a number of stand-alones with other main characters. The last time he introduced a new protagonist was The Lincoln Lawyer, Haller's debut, in 2005.
Connelly has mentioned in recent interviews that he wanted to write about a new character inspired by real-life LAPD Detective Mitzi Roberts, who has been a consultant on the Bosch TV show. "I'm using some of her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated world, a male-dominated profession, trying to capture that," Connelly said in February.
Capture it he does. The Late Show takes its title from the overnight shift that Ballard works in the Hollywood Division. It's a mostly thankless assignment that she was bounced to from a fast-track job as a homicide detective after she reported her supervisor for sexual harassment.
Ballard works sometimes with a partner, John Jenkins, whose main concern is getting off work on time to get home to his dying wife. Just as often, Ballard works alone, and she likes it that way.
Usually, the late shift detectives handle the first steps of investigating crimes reported in the wee hours, then hand them off to the appropriate squads — homicide, robbery and so on — at dawn. As The Late Show opens, Ballard and Jenkins catch a couple of crimes that might be exceptions.
One is a gruesome assault on a sex worker who was beaten and then dumped and left for dead in a parking lot. As she was transported to the hospital, Ramona Ramone told rescuers she had been attacked in "the upside-down house," a description that will stick in Ballard's brain as she tries to find the attacker.
So will the deep bruises on Ramone's torso, purple oblongs with the words "good" and "evil" embedded in them — evidence that her attacker used illegal brass knuckles, another lead. Ballard wants to dig into the case herself: "Whoever did this is big evil, Jenks." Since few detectives care deeply about assaults on sex workers, she'll probably get a chance to pursue it.
The other case, however, is so high profile she and Jenkins will only get its scraps. Four people have been murdered at a Sunset Boulevard nightclub called the Dancers, which "got its name from a club in the great L.A. novel The Long Goodbye" (Connelly's nod to Raymond Chandler). Four men sat down at a table; one pulled a gun and murdered the others. On his way out, the assailant shot a bouncer and a cocktail server named Cindy Haddel; she is the sole survivor.
Ballard is assigned to follow her to the hospital while homicide cops work the crime scene, since Haddel is just "collateral damage." Haddel doesn't make it, so Ballard begins gathering evidence related to her. She learns the young woman was an aspiring actor, and in a meta moment finds her resume: " 'Girl at Bar' appeared to be her most frequent role. She had played the part in an episode of a television show called Bosch, which Ballard knew was based on the exploits of a now-retired LAPD detective who had formerly worked at RHD and the Hollywood detective bureau."
Ballard will be warned to stay away from the Dancers case by, among others, her former partner, Ken Chastain, with whom she's still angry for his failure to back her up on the sexual harassment charge. But she'll be drawn into the Dancers investigation, and both that case and her search for the "upside-down house" will twist in unexpected and frightening directions.
The most intriguing mystery in The Late Show, though, is Ballard herself. Connelly is too skillful to hand us her resume in one document dump; instead, he fills out her portrait with a subtle hand over the course of the novel, a little background here, a glimpse of her temperament there, the revelation of her unusual living conditions sketched in between.
Like Bosch, she takes us on an extended insider's tour of her city, including territory that Harry rarely visits, like Venice — Ballard blows off steam (and defies cop stereotypes) by paddleboarding. We learn how she acquired a facial scar inflicted with a pricey Christian Louboutin spike-heel shoe (this is Hollywood, after all) and how she responds when her life, or someone else's, is in mortal danger.
By the end of The Late Show that portrait is fleshed out and fascinating, but there's still plenty we don't know about Ballard, and that I'm looking forward to finding out.
Does Connelly's newest character mean he's putting Harry Bosch out to pasture? Not a chance. Finish reading The Late Show and you'll find a 31-page bonus: the first four chapters of Two Kinds of Truth, the 20th Bosch book, coming in November.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.