Monday, May 10, 2004

May 9, 2004
Watching the Detectives

Anyone who wonders why crime stories dominate our popular culture should spend a day with Tim Marcia, Rick Jackson and Dave Lambkin. They're Los Angeles police detectives, members of the department's two-year-old cold-case squad, which is responsible for re-examining unsolved crimes through the lens of the latest forensic advances. A conversation about their work sounds like a pitch meeting for a new ripped-from-the-headlines TV series: ''L.A. Law and Order.'' The stories go on literally for hours, and, well, you couldn't make this stuff up, which is ostensibly why the best-selling crime novelist Michael Connelly is here in the squad room, a stuffy, essentially characterless enclosure with a few desks pushed together. He's just starting a new book, and on this January morning he's foraging for material.

He has a lot to select from. There's the story about the rapist and murderer who, in his portable crime kit, along with several pairs of handcuffs and precut lengths of duct tape, carried a vial of another man's semen, which he sprinkled on the rug of the crime scene to throw off the cops. There's the one about the murder suspect being monitored on a wiretap who revealed -- long before divulging the details of his crime -- that he was a homosexual and, to the great glee of the police officers listening in, that he had a crush on Detective Jackson. And then there's the one about the guy arrested for sexually abusing his daughter. The cops tested his semen, but as Detective Jackson recalls, ''they come back and they say to the guy: 'We got good news and bad news. The bad news is that we made you on the DNA. The good news is that she isn't your daughter.'''

Connelly, 47, listens with gratitude and amazement; he isn't used to this kind of openness. He first got to know the Los Angeles Police Department as a reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He arrived from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to take a job on the police beat in 1987 and stayed until 1994, a span that included the Rodney King beating and the Los Angeles riots and ended just before the O.J. Simpson case got under way. They were years when the department was riddled by scandal, the scrutiny of the press was ever-present and the institutional animosity between the department and the newspaper was intense. ''I can't tell you how many times I'd approach a guy and introduce myself, say I'm Mike Connelly from The L.A. Times, and he'd say, 'Good for you,' and turn away,'' he says.

A compact man with short gray-blond hair and a trimmed beard, Connelly has the solicitous manner of a reporter who knows that today a vein has opened for him and doesn't want to stanch the flow. When he speaks, it's in a soft monotone, and his questions are mostly about the details of police procedure:

''If you have DNA, and you send it through the Department of Justice,'' he asks, ''how long until you get the results?''

''Is it just an urban legend that if you get a bone-marrow transplant, it changes your DNA?''

''Have there been changes in the law regarding wiretaps since 9/11?''

Later, asked what he got from the day's research, Connelly says that the wiretap information was helpful. The detectives had described a communications center where several taps were being monitored at once. It's not the usual image of a wiretap in progress, he says. You know the one: a couple of guys hunched in the back of a van with headphones on. Still, the lion's share of his gleaned information was not in the particulars.

''I don't want to underplay procedure and technology,'' he says, ''but to me what's really important is the emotional stuff.''

He noticed, he says, that each of the three detectives had photos of victims prominently displayed on their desks. ''Early on, one of them said, 'You always have one case you fall in love with,''' he says. ''Most people in life have pictures of kids or wives festooned around their desks. These guys have dead people.''

To inform those without a weakness for detective stories, Michael Connelly is the emerging star of the genre. He routinely sells about 300,000 copies of his books in hardcover and about a million more in paperback. While that doesn't approach the really heavy hitters like John Grisham, whose legal thrillers sell upward of two million hardcovers, Connelly is an avowed favorite of critics and other mystery novelists, who give him credit for elevating, if not transcending, the genre. He has been called the natural heir of the Los Angeles crime family, which begins with Raymond Chandler and descends through the likes of Ross MacDonald, Joseph Wambaugh and James Ellroy. And others have been more complimentary than that.

''In the old mystery tradition, in which a crime is committed at the beginning and solved in the end,'' says George Pelecanos, whose 10th book, ''Hard Revolution,'' was just published, ''he's the best mystery writer in the world, I think.''

Connelly is a student of police procedure -- he keeps a small library of manuals at home -- and he comes equipped with a reporter's eye for detail and, as a setting, a city that is rife with atmosphere. He also has a nose for plot; he knows where the skeletons are buried (the bare bones of an early novel, ''The Concrete Blonde,'' were snitched from a procedure manual), and he has the writerly ingenuity to provide their page-turning, seductive flesh.

But what may distinguish him most is his interest in the psychic toll of police work: not how a cop works on a case, as he puts it, echoing a line of Wambaugh's, ''but how a case works on a cop.'' His admiration for the police officers who manage to do the job right is as viscerally felt as a little boy's. He was first intrigued by the police as a 16-year-old, he says, when he witnessed a carjacking in Fort Lauderdale and spent the night in the police station answering questions about it. ''There was definitely a bit of hero worship in it,'' Connelly says of his decision to write novels about cops, which happened not long afterward, when he was in college.

Since then, he says: ''I've come to respect them more, probably. It's a hard job to do correctly, and when you do, it's not noticed. But if you make a mistake or fall victim to the myriad lures of corruption or the other things that can happen to you, then you get noticed. They accept that, and their acceptance of it is the nobility of the job.''

Connelly has written 14 novels since 1992, 10 of them -- including ''The Narrows,'' just published by Little, Brown -- featuring a Los Angeles police detective named Harry Bosch. And in many ways the Bosch novels amount to a chronicle of life in the Los Angeles Police Department in the post-Rodney King era. In Connelly's unflattering portrayal, it is an angry, paranoid force, hamstrung by bureaucracy and riddled not so much by corruption (though there is some of that) but by petty jealousies, small-mindedness and self-aggrandizement.

In such an environment, Harry Bosch is a rogue cop, and real cops like Tim Marcia, an 18-year veteran, say Connelly gets it almost exactly right. Things are changing under a new police chief, William J. Bratton, Marcia says, but for years too many L.A. cops were preoccupied with not getting in trouble themselves rather than with putting bad guys in jail. Harry, Marcia says, is an idealized version of what you have to be in order to do a good job. ''He's very methodical, and he's never interrupted,'' Marcia says. ''That's the way we would like to work.''

Growling, contemplative and skeptical, a man who suffers fools and authority figures with ill-disguised contempt, Harry is an iconoclastic throwback, the kind of guy whom men test themselves against and who challenges women to make him love them. He smokes, listens to moody jazz; he isn't averse to either drinking or heading into danger alone, and he is constitutionally unable to walk away from an innocent in peril or a criminal who might be getting away with it. In short, he is the old-fashioned sort of detective protagonist about whom Chandler wrote in the famous essay, ''The Simple Art of Murder'': ''He will take no man's money dishonestly and no man's insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge.''

Look closer, however, and Harry is a hero for our age. In fact, his tough exterior and noir milieu notwithstanding, he's actually rather soft-boiled. He has a past and a personal life; his mother was a call girl who aspired to higher things; she was murdered when Harry was 11. (Connelly borrowed this detail from the life of James Ellroy.) She gave her son the name Hieronymus, after the 15th- and 16th-century painter whose view of the hellishness on earth becomes a metaphor for the way Harry perceives Los Angeles.

And crucially, unlike just about every other fictional detective, Bosch is aging in real time. He was born in 1950. He served in Vietnam. He has an estranged wife he still loves -- and a young daughter he's just getting to know.

Harry's not a wiseacre, like Robert Parker's Spenser, nor does he have the deep sadness of P.D. James's Adam Dalgliesh. He's a brooder, though, a blue-collar philosopher who believes that the empirical evidence tells him evil exists in the world and that it is his mission to confront it.

''The idea of whether there's such a thing as a waiting evil, it's a question I don't know the answer to,'' Connelly says. ''I ask about it, but it's hard to bring it up with a cop. You have to wait for an alone moment, but I've never gotten a good answer from anybody, which is why it comes up over and over in the books.''

Connelly says he built Harry from a number of cops he met while he was a reporter. And parts of himself? Is Harry's heart his heart?

''If that would be the case, I'd be proud of that,'' Connelly says. ''His heart is the heart I'd hope to have on my best day.''

ou might not expect the Los Angeles chief of police to be a Connelly fan, but he is. Chief Bratton, in his second year on the job, says that Harry's problems with department bureaucracy are ''on the money,'' and that Connelly's portrayal of a 9-to-5 culture in the department is, sadly, accurate. ''Harry would welcome the changes we're trying to bring here,'' Bratton says. ''A year ago, you could be the victim of a rape on a Friday, have three uniformed officers take you to the hospital to do all the lab work, but not see a detective until Tuesday morning. So we're getting closer to his work ethic, in the sense that his work is his life.''

Unknown to Bratton, he's playing a part in Harry's life. A couple of books ago, Harry was fed up and left the department. In the last book, ''Lost Light,'' and in ''The Narrows,'' he's working on his own, as a private detective. But Connelly found that he missed having Harry trying to turn the battleship of the department bureaucracy. In ''The Narrows,'' a new police chief announces a policy that will allow officers who took early retirement to return within three years -- a policy that, in real life, has been championed by Bratton -- and in the next book, Harry will return.

This time, however, he won't be working homicide. He's joining the cold-case squad -- the real one was formed just before Bratton took over -- which explains his visit to the squad room.

He has kept in touch with the three detectives, and since January, one thing he has learned, to his delight, is that the investigation of unsolved cases often leads out of town, offering a whole new set of possibilities for Harry. The three detectives are discussing bringing a serial killer in Delaware back to Los Angeles in connection with an old case, Connelly says, ''and I've been asking them things like, 'What do you say to a serial killer on a five-hour flight?'''

The impetus for the cold-case setting ''was the idea that these guys are coming back to cases that are 15, 20 years old and seeing the long-term damage of violence in our society. Harry's used to dealing with people in a state of shock, not with years of letting something this bad settle into their bones.''

One thing the detectives provide in January is a crucial theme -- that recent technology has turned police work upside down. Once it was the job of detectives to identify a suspect and then take fingerprints and blood samples from him to compare with evidence at the scene. Criminalists, that is, forensic experts, played a subservient role. Now, Detective Lambkin says, with the establishment of data banks for fingerprints, ballistics and DNA, ''the criminalists can come to us and say, 'This is your guy.' So you can't do the job anymore like we used to.''

This is especially pertinent to their current assignment, in that the changes have created an almost laughable backlog of work. Astoundingly, there are nearly 11,000 unsolved murders since 1960 on the books in Los Angeles, and the seven detectives on the cold-case squad are sifting through them to decide which ones might benefit from the application of techniques that were unavailable when the crimes were committed.

Connelly asks specifically about the difference between investigating cold cases and fresh ones. The speed necessary in pursuing a fresh case, he is told, means that you don't often form attachments to victims or their families. Cold cases, however, involve an enormous amount of desk work and research, of reading investigation reports and examining old evidence to familiarize yourself with the particulars of a case; murder books -- the notebooks kept by detectives as chronicles of each case -- can be more than 500 pages long. So even before you do any interviews, you know the victim almost intimately.

Detective Marcia tells Connelly a story about his recent visit to an elderly hardware-store owner to inform him that the investigation of his sister's 1969 murder was being reopened. The man broke down in tears. ''We were premature on that one,'' Marcia says, ''because we just got the DNA report back, and we don't have enough evidence to work with. So we just put this man through the ringer again, and even though we gave him hope for the moment, we're going to have to call him back and say we're sorry, but we don't have the evidence to continue. Emotionally, that's tough.''

Connelly came to writing crime novels first by accident and then by design. The son of a real estate developer who moved his family from Philadelphia to Fort Lauderdale when Michael was a boy, he was at the University of Florida, studying building and real estate, when he went to the movies one night and saw Robert Altman's film adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel ''The Long Goodbye.'' ''That led me to the book, which led me to all of Chandler's books, and something hit me,'' he says. ''I wanted to switch my future and become a writer.''

Of course, other than witnessing a carjacking, he'd had no experience with crime or the cops. It was his father's idea that he become a reporter to learn the territory. So Connelly went to journalism school, where among other things he met his wife, Linda. (They have a daughter, now 7.) And in 1980 he went to work for The Daytona Beach News Journal; in nine months he covered one murder.

He moved back to Fort Lauderdale and spent six years on The Fort Lauderdale News. There he was luckier; in 1986, the city had more murders per capita than any other city in the country, earning it the title ''murder capital of America.''

By the time he moved to The Los Angeles Times in the summer of 1987, he had tried twice to write a novel and hadn't succeeded. But on the day he first set foot in town, he received what amounted to a sign. The headlines that day were about a mammoth bank heist, in which the crooks tunneled into the vault from underground. To this day, the crime has never been solved. But it became the centerpiece of Connelly's first novel, ''The Black Echo.''

He left The Times in 1994, and three years ago, he and his family moved back East, to Tampa. But Los Angeles continues to provide fodder for his fiction, and he visits frequently. All the books are filled with descriptions of contemporary L.A., tidbits from its history, glimpses of its underworld. Many of the plot points were born in the city as well. ''The Narrows'' has its climax during a roaring rainstorm that turns the ordinarily placid Los Angeles River into a furious torrent, an idea Connelly borrowed from a historical incident in which a boy drowned in the river in spite of a massive effort to rescue him.

In his view, however, the greatest influence on his writing occurred before he arrived. He was in Fort Lauderdale, shortly after the city earned its unfortunate sobriquet, and the police department, to earn some counterbalancing publicity, granted a reporter, Connelly, a week's access to the homicide squad.

''And lo and behold, we had three murders, all in the middle of the night,'' Connelly says. ''So I'm filling notebook after notebook, fantastic stuff. But the epiphany came in the last five minutes of that week. I'd noticed at the murder scenes that the sergeant I was staying closest to would at some point go up to the body, take off his glasses and put the earpiece in his mouth. It was always a solemn moment, and I was building all kinds of things into what he was doing. Was he silently promising, 'I will find who did this?' That kind of stuff.

''So then at the end of the week I'm sitting in the squad room doing the final 'thanks a lot,' and he starts remarking that he'd spent three nights without sleep, and he takes off his glasses and drops them on his desk to rub his eyes. And I noticed that the earpiece of his glasses had a deep groove cut into it. And I realized that it was from his teeth, that his teeth are clenched so tight when he's looking at a body that they cut into his glasses. It dawned on me at that moment that that might have been the most important thing I'd seen.

''And that, now, is what my life is, a pursuit of that kind of detail.''

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