Reviews

Crime Beat

The many fans of perennially bestselling mystery author Connelly will certainly lap up this collection of his articles written during his former life as a crime journalist in Florida and California. In three sections, "The Cops," "The Killers" and "The Cases," Connelly presents a wide variety of stories from the 1980s and early '90s, ranging from local crimes to national sensations such as the serial killer Christopher Wilder, one of the FBI's Most Wanted.

With Wilder, for instance, readers watch Connelly build a portrait of a man who gained access to women in the Florida modeling and fashion scene by posing as a professional photographer with "cunning charm, smooth talk and money.".

Connelly tells tales of double lives, failures of the criminal justice system and the shooting death of a 245-pound L.A. prostitute. The format of the book may disappoint some, as the inclusion of multiple reports about the same crimes often contain repetitive language. The author is strongest bringing quiet moments to life, such as the despair of parents hoping that a missing child will still turn up, or the patient, resigned professionalism of weary detectives. Devotees of Connelly's fiction will enjoy tracing the real-life roots of some of his plots.
— Publishers Weekly

Before thriller writer Michael Connelly wrote about fictional crimes, he spent a decade covering real ones as a journalist in Fort Lauderdale and Los Angeles (where he'd base his Harry Bosch novels). Bosch fans keen to find the real-life inspirations for their dogged detective hero in this collection of Connelly's reportage should look no further than the superb opening piece, which tracks a week in the life of the Fort Lauderdale homicide squad and closely resembles the tone of his subsequent books. Elsewhere, Connelly's distinctive authorial voice is less evident, although his eye for detail remains a constant. He notes that one less-than-bright drug-addicted burglar boasted a giveaway "Get High" tattoo on his bicep.
— Clark Collis, Entertainment Weekly, B+

It all comes down to the eyeglasses. In the introduction to "Crime Beat," a collection of the crime reporting he did for papers in South Florida and Los Angeles, the mystery novelist Michael Connelly pins down the moment that, he says, taught him a crucial lesson in observing people. In the course of a week spent with homicide detectives, Connelly noticed one of them, usually at a crime scene, taking off his glasses and hooking the earpiece in his mouth.

"These were solemn moments," he writes. "He was observing the victim as a detective but there seemed to be something else going on as well. A sort of communion, or secret promise. It was not something he would talk to me about when I asked."

Shortly after that, Connelly notices a deep groove in the earpiece. "I knew," he writes, "that when he hooked his glasses in his mouth, his teeth clenched so tightly on them that they cut into the hard plastic of the earpiece. It said something about the man, about the job, about the world." Connelly concludes, "It said all that needed to be said about his dedication, motivation and relationship to his job." Well, yes and no. Here is the detail as it appeared in Connelly's South Florida Sun-Sentinel article "The Call" on Oct. 25, 1987: "George Hurt is sitting at his desk, shaking his head. He has the reading glasses he usually wears while doing paperwork off and the tip of one of the earpieces clenched in his teeth. The plastic tip is grooved from being clenched there often. It is that kind of job."

Minus the context Connelly provides in his introduction, particularly his apt and telling choice of the word "communion," with all the spiritual symbolism it implies, to describe a homicide detective's feelings of obligation to murder victims, we could be reading a detail of an overworked cop who hates to do paperwork, or has taken to chewing his glasses to kick a nicotine habit.

In fairness to Connelly, newspaper reporters don't often get the chance to branch out as storytellers. So he may have had to make do with simply noting the grooved earpiece. Or he may have thought it was overselling the point to elaborate. Whatever happened, the longer pieces in "Crime Beat," and the sections containing several articles on the developments in one particular case, make it easy to see why Connelly wanted to move on to the full-scale storytelling of his novels featuring the Los Angeles Police Department detective Harry Bosch, and of stand-alones like "The Poet" and "Blood Work."

"Crime Beat" is an uneasy hybrid. The writing is both expansive and constricted. When Connelly attempts to move beyond meat and potatoes reporting, you get the impression of a reporter trying to squeeze reality into the confines of hard-boiled fiction.

Take the following passage, about a suspected mobster: "Little Nicky was driving his white Rolls-Royce on Commercial Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, heading for some dinner, when he saw the blue light in the rearview mirror." Or this one, from a Los Angeles Times article: "The hard set of his eyes betrayed nothing. No fear. No concern. The camera clicked, and the mug shot was taken. For Comtois, it was simply part of life." Or this, about Fort Lauderdale cops: "George Hurt has gone home early. His sinuses are acting up and the last few days have been slow. He figures he can take the break. He is sitting on the couch and has the afternoon paper in his hands when he gets The Call." The initial caps in those last two words are the written equivalent of a sudden blast in the midst of a Miklos Rozsa score, a bit of noir melodrama, and it sticks out.

And the prose in "Crime Beat" is full of those moments, the tough-guy writing that's part Hemingway stoic and part wiseacre snappy. "Crime Beat" isn't all like that. When Connelly tamps down his slumming scribe impulses, his reporting is good, clean, straightforward. What's best here are the dispatches in which he follows a case over a couple of months. Taken together, the installments give you the whole story. Because each separate entry feels as if it was written on deadline, adhering to the reporter's necessity to get down the essentials briefly and accurately, there's no room for mannerisms.

Connelly is particularly good in a section titled "Death Squad," about a case involving a Los Angeles Police Department squad that surreptitiously followed people suspected of criminal activity and allowed crimes to take place. The reasoning was that the cops would then have a better chance of convicting them once they were arrested. In the case Connelly writes about, it allowed the cops to act as executioners right after the crime. This is exactly the sort of subject that calls for hardheadedness, and Connelly supplies it, not in his prose but in his determination not to take the word of authority simply because it comes from authority. The articles that make up "Death Squad" suggest there is a place for the hard-boiled influence in reporting. Not by aping the prose of Chandler and his progeny, but by following the motto of a less glamorous icon, Jack Webb's Joe Friday: Just the facts.
— Charles Taylor, New York Times

Michael Connelly, whose early crime reporting is collected in "Crime Beat," didn't start out to be either a reporter or a novelist. His father and grandfather built houses, and when Connelly entered college in Florida, his major was building construction sciences. He hated it. One night, he happened upon a showing of Robert Altman's quirky 1973 film version of Raymond Chandler's "The Long Goodbye." He loved it, and he proceeded to read all of Chandler's novels and to change his major to journalism.

From then on, he intended to use crime reporting to prepare himself to write novels in the Chandler mode, and he followed his plan brilliantly. After starting out with newspapers in Florida, he wound up as a police reporter for the Los Angeles Times, where he began writing his great Harry Bosch series.

Every generation produces reporters whose talent is essentially novelistic and for whom journalism is a way station on the road to fiction. Hemingway was the classic example of the 20th century, but there are many others -- Tom Wolfe was one, and so is Connelly. For instance, here's the lead of the first crime story reprinted in the book, from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 1987: "It has been four days since anybody has heard from or seen Walter Moody, and people are thinking that something is wrong." It's not the typical who-what-when-where-why-and- how formula of police reporting. Connelly was always looking for mood, drama, eccentricity, the telling detail.

One of the fascinations of this collection is spotting the police-beat details -- the fellow with teardrops tattooed below his eyes, the detective who chewed the earpiece of his glasses -- that later punctuate the Bosch novels. This is not a book for everyone. It's probably best seen as a courtesy paid to Connelly by his publisher after the huge success of last year's "The Lincoln Lawyer." But it will be of interest to close students of his fiction, to some journalists and to anyone interested in how the sow's ear of fact becomes the silk purse of fiction. "Nothing was lost," Connelly says in his introduction. "All experiences went into the creative blender and were eventually poured out as something new in my fiction." Connelly shows us the before-and-after. What he can't do is explain the magic that underlies the process. That's the mystery, the quicksilver called talent, the sorcery that makes readers suspend disbelief.
— Patrick Anderson, Washington Post

 

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