Thursday, April 3, 2008

THE BLACK ECHO, by Michael Connelly

I know a plumber who loves taking long baths and reading. He sits in the tub for an hour at a time, nearly every night, burning through paperbacks and cigarettes. This guy reads a lot of crime writing, especially nonfiction histories of the IRA (he's an Irishman himself, from a troubled town in the North), but he also loves Michael Connelly. I'd never read Connelly, but my friend has every book that Connelly's ever written, so I figured I'd give it a try. I started with this book because it's Connelly's first, and because it also introduces Connelly's principle protagonist: Harry Bosch.

Harry Bosch is a burned-out police detective in Hollywood. He's also a Vietnam War veteran who served as a tunnel rat during that conflict. The story touches on the Vietnam War heavily, especially in the ways it affected the American troops who served there. I've seen enough Vietnam War movies that I almost started feeling false nostalgia while reading this book, so this angle definitely brought a lot of interest into the story for me.

It's a pretty long story, too. The version I borrowed comes to just under 500 pages, which is pretty ambitious for a first novel. Connelly holds it together for the length of the story, keeps the action marching, though it does slog through some mud in the middle. It also bends into a few ridiculous contortions, especially in regards to Bosch's love interest, and it stretches believability for the sake of swashbuckling. Bosch drops down into the tunnels unsupported at the end of the book, which the reader is obligated to go along with for the sake of fun rather than for the sake of realism or rationality.

In its style and its twisting plot, the book reveals a certain admiration for Raymond Chandler. Connelly even includes an oblique reference to the conclusion of Chandler's "The Big Sleep," with its musing over the mercy of death. But Connelly differs from Chandler in a few important ways. For one, he doesn't match Chandler's eloquence. For another, his world is bleaker, and Bosch is rougher around the edges than Philip Marlowe ever seemed to be. While Marlowe seemed world-weary but wise, Bosch teeters on the brink of despair, and he drifts through the events in a way that reflects an inadequate world more than it exposes Bosch's own exceptional competence.

All in all, it was a good read. I'll probably visit Bosch again sometime soon, especially because of my friend's comprehensive collection. But the truth is, this book's echos of Chandler made me feel like returning to that author's work, and following Philip Marlowe through his paces, before I come back to Bosch.

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