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"The Narrows' rich, complex

Published Aug. 28, 2005

THE NARROWS

By Michael Connelly

Little, Brown, $25.95, 405 pp

Reviewed by JEAN HELLER

By now, the large segment of the world that comprises Michael Connelly's fan club knows that this year's Harry Bosch thriller reprises one of Connelly's better villains, the Poet, a smart, savvy serial killer named Robert Backus. The hook with Backus in the first book: He headed the FBI's behavioral science unit when it was chasing a serial killer who was murdering Los Angeles police officers. So, in essence, Backus was hunting himself.

When the book ended, Backus was thought to be dead, but no one knew for certain, and Connelly, a resident of the Tampa Bay area, has said he intended to leave that uncertainty in the wind forever. Forever has ended nine years later.

A hand-held global-positioning system arrives at the FBI with a message on it, "Hello, Rachel," and a single waypoint in its memory. The message is a callout to Agent Rachel Walling, one of Backus' proteges at behavioral sciences and the person who is thought to have killed him. The waypoint is at the end of an oddly named road in the middle of the Nevada desert.

Walling, who fell into major disfavor with the bureau during the Poet case for sleeping with a reporter, has spent the intervening years in the Dakotas doing penance. But because she knows Backus so well, she is called into the new case as an observer. The new case consists of 10 dead bodies buried in the desert off Zzyzx Road.

Meanwhile, Harry Bosch is still retired from the Los Angeles police force and doing private detecting when he receives a call from the wife of his old friend and colleague, FBI Agent Terry McCaleb, a character created by Connelly for Blood Work and A Darkness More Than Night. McCaleb has died at sea while running a fishing charter, the apparent failure of the heart transplanted into his chest five years earlier.

McCaleb's widow wants Bosch to look into things, and when Harry starts rummaging around in the files of cold cases McCaleb kept aboard his boat, he finds some cryptic information about a case being worked out of Las Vegas, the disappearance of six men. Something about the case and the notes kept by McCaleb pique Bosch's interest, particularly because a newspaper story mentions that McCaleb had offered his assistance to the Las Vegas police and was turned down. And now McCaleb is dead.

Coincidence? Bosch thinks not.

The Narrows is a rich, highly complex story that is never difficult to follow. And despite numerous references to past Connelly books that readers of this one might or might not have read, Connelly provides just enough background to make the intricate, evolving relationships apparent without a heavy-handed retelling of every last detail.

All the principal characters have difficult and interesting conflicts. Bosch is trying to be a father to the daughter he just discovered he had, even as he and the little girl's mother battle constantly over her upbringing.

Rachael Walling wants desperately to get back on the inside with the FBI, but she can't do as she's told and stay quiet in the corner until spoken to. And even after Bosch is warned by the bureau to stay out of the Zzyzx Road case, he won't, and Rachael wants to go where he goes.

The Narrows is Connelly's best work since A Darkness More Than Night. He will delight his old fans and earn some new ones, and he deserves the accolades of both.

Jean Heller is the author of the mystery-thrillers Handyman and Maximum Impact (Forge).