Michael Connelly is one of those few writers whose books I feel compelled to devour as soon as they appear, and it was somewhat chilling to realise that this has been the case almost since his first, The Black Echo, was published some twenty years ago. Since then, Harry Bosch has featured in seventeen novels, not always as the lead character, but he is the lead in the The Black Box, which is the eighteenth, and which is set, not by coincidence, in 1992, to mark the anniversary of the first book.
Its set in the present, but the cold crime Bosch investigates is a case he had drawn twenty years before, the murder of a Danish photo-journalist in the midst of the Rodney King riots. The chaos facing the LAPD at that time meant Bosch couldn't delve fully into the killing at the time, and no one else did either. But the characteristic that most defines Bosch is his desire to bring justice to those who've been denied it, so he begins retracing the steps his two-decades younger self took. He's trying to unravel two mysteries: who killed Anneke Jespersen, and why.
Soon it becomes apparent that Jespersen wasn't collateral damage of the LA riots, and the trail Bosch then follows leads back not only to the LA of that time, but to the first Iraq war. The beauty of what might be considered a story-telling 'gimmick' is that it fits perfectly not only with the situation Connelly has created (Bosch on the Open Unsolved Unit) but also with the character which he has built so carefully and thoroughly over the past two decades. Even when the settings or situations seem unlikely, his Bosch remains a person who has sometimes grown and sometimes not over the years.
This paradox is probably the best part of the novel—as always, Harry cannot resist going off alone, doing what he thinks is right, and overlooking or sometimes not even being aware of the consequences. Of course, this is more perilous when you're a single father with a teenaged daughter, but it also applies when Bosch tries to do something thoughtful for his new girl-friend, psychologist Hannah Stone, and it winds up bouncing back to bite him professionally, and quite possibly on a personal level as well.
Connelly has gone back in time in other ways too. Bosch tends to be most interesting when he has a corporate foil (remember Harvey '98' Pounds?) which was what his new boss, Lt. Cliff 'Tool' O'Toole provides. It puts added tension into virtually all Bosch's decisions—on top of his added vulnerability with retirement staring him in the face. Throw in an inscrutable IAD detective on his case, and Bosch faces problems inside the department which are possibly harder to solve that a twenty year old murder. But of course, once Harry uncovers the 'Black Box' at the heart of the case, he will move forward to discover the truth. The finish is more action thriller than some, but the beauty of it is that again it recalls Bosch's part—the Vietnam experience which was such a shadow over the early Bosch novels.And it ends with perhaps the finest piece of self-examination we've yet received from Harry.
Music has always been a part of Bosch's story too, and in this novel, along with a huge nod to Art Pepper (as you'd expect, since the alto player represents the essence of Harry's dark and solitary LA soul) Connelly gets in plugs for younger jazz artists: Michael Formaek, Danny Grissett, Gary Smulyan, Seamus Blake, and Grace Kelly (not the princess). So now I'll have to check them out.
Speaking of Pounds, it wasn't quite twenty years ago that I reviewed Connelly's Trunk Music, in which he is the victim, for the Spectator, and said this was the finest detective series being written in America. Nothing Michael Connelly has written since then has led me to change my mind, and The Black Box once again confirms it.
The Black Box by Michael Connelly
Orion Books, £18.99, ISBN 9781409134312
Note: this review will also appear in Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)