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Review: Michael Connelly's 'The Black Box' revisits Los Angeles riots

We rarely have the chance to go back and try to right something we failed at 20 years ago. In The Black Box, Harry Bosch gets that chance.

The novel begins in the red-hot middle of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles that followed the acquittal of four police officers for the beating of motorist Rodney King. Over six nights in April, 53 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured; property damage topped $1 billion.

Michael Connelly covered those riots, on the ground as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He had published The Black Echo, his first novel (also about Bosch, an L.A. Police Department homicide detective), in January of 1992 but had not yet stopped working as a journalist. On the night the King verdict came down, Connelly was posted at the intersection where the beating had happened — and barely escaped the angry mob.

That experience no doubt helped him saturate this novel's opening with urgency. In its first chapter, Bosch and his partner are a roving homicide investigation team, moving from one killing to the next as bullets snap and the fires of the riot burn around them.

The killings are coming so fast that the two men can do little real investigation. When they're called to an alley in South Central L.A., where the body of a young white woman has been found by one of the National Guard members on patrol, Bosch can do little more than note she was shot at point-blank range through the eye. He finds one bullet casing on the ground, four canisters of film in her pocket and a media pass hung around her neck that identifies her as Anneke Jesperson.

When the case is picked up weeks later by other investigators, they discover that Jesperson was a freelance photojournalist from Denmark, a war correspondent who had covered conflicts around the globe. What she was doing in Los Angeles is just one question left unanswered as her murder slides into cold case status.

Cut to the present, and Bosch is back on that long-ago case, after "the media-savvy chief of police sent a directive to the lieutenant in charge of the Open-Unsolved Unit ordering a fresh look at all unsolved murders that occurred during the unrest in 1992. The chief wanted to be ready when the media started their inquiries in regard to the twenty-years-later stories. The department might have been caught flat-footed back in '92, but it wouldn't be in 2012."

Bosch has asked for the case specifically, despite the long odds of solving it. "He believed that every case had a black box. A piece of evidence, a person, a positioning of facts that brought a certain understanding and helped explain what had happened and why." In crime fiction, the detective often functions as a storyteller — he or she gathers a body of apparently random material and forms it into a coherent narrative. Bosch's black box is the key that clicks that narrative into focus.

What he begins with in 2012 is the bullet casing. It's not his black box, but it leads him to the gun that killed Jesperson, and to other murders committed with the same gun. But how a string of gang-related contract killings over more than a decade ties into a foreign journalist's murder during a riot raises far more questions than it answers — and soon leads Bosch into places he never imagined the case might echo.

The Black Box is Connelly's 25th book and his 18th about Bosch. Since that first book in 1992, Connelly, who divides his time between Los Angeles and Tampa, has become an internationally bestselling author. Besides selling millions of books, he has received an array of awards; just this year, he was named a Knight of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture and Communications and received the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.

Although he has created other compelling characters, Bosch is his main guy, beloved by readers despite (or maybe because of) his relentless, hard-charging, antisocial personality and stubborn resistance to authority figures. All that dates to his grim childhood and grimmer experiences as a "tunnel rat" during the Vietnam War — a background Connelly has filled in with deft strokes over 20 years. The result is not just a dogged detective but an avenger who puts justice first, ahead of even himself. (A television series based on the Bosch books is in development, with Connelly very much involved.)

The author has softened Bosch a bit in some ways, notably through his believably portrayed relationship with his daughter, Madeleine, who's 16 in this book and eager to follow in her dad's footsteps, despite his misgivings.

But when Bosch gets locked onto a case, as he does in The Black Box, those tender moments fall away. Connelly builds the cases slowly, walking us with Bosch through the sometimes tedious real-life work of analyzing physical evidence, interviewing witnesses, connecting dots and dodging bureaucrats.

There is always a moment in these novels when the case slams into high gear, when evil shows its face and Bosch transforms from investigator to warrior and walks once again into darkness. As Connelly writes near the end of The Black Box, "He . . . knew that if he waited, somehow he would see, that there was lost light in all places of darkness, and if he found it, it would save him."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

The Black Box

By Michael Connelly

Little, Brown, 403 pages, $27.99

Meet the author

Michael Connelly will appear in conversation with Tampa Bay Times book editor Colette Bancroft, followed by a book signing, at 7 p.m. Dec. 12 at Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.

Copies of The Black Box signed and personally inscribed by Connelly are available from Inkwood Books in Tampa; for information and online ordering, go to inkwoodbooks.com/.

Review: Michael Connelly's 'The Black Box' revisits Los Angeles riots 11/24/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 6:07pm]
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