The Night Fire by Michael Connelly: A Superfluity of Cases Hampers Connelly’s Latest

The Night Fire

The Night Fire

by Michael Connelly
Series: Harry Bosch, #22/Renée Ballard, #3

Hardcover, 405 pg.
Little, Brown and Company, 2019

Read: November 1-4, 2019

…I’m not sure how much I can be involved.”

“You’re dumping this case on me. You changed my radio station and dumped the case on me.”

“No, I want to help and I will help. John Jack mentored me. He taught me the rule, you know?”

“What rule?”

“To take every case personally.”

“What?”

“Take every case personally and you get angry. It builds a fire. It gives you the edge you need to go the distance every time out.”

Ballard thought about that. She understood what he was saying but knew it was a dangerous way to live and work.

“He said ‘every case’?” she asked.

“‘Every case,'” Bosch said.

In The Night Fire Michael Connelly gives one more piece of evidence that yes, you can occasionally have too much of a good thing. We’ve got a little bit of a Mickey Haller case, something that Bosch works mostly on his own, something that Bosch and Ballard work together, a case that Ballard works mostly on her own, and then a hint of something else that Bosch primarily does solo. Plus there’s something about Bosch’s personal life and a dash of Maddie’s life. Which is all a lot to ask out of 405 pages.

It’s plenty to ask out of 650 pages, come to think of it. But anyway, let’s take a look, shall we?

Haller was drafted to defend an indigent man accused of murdering a judge, and is doing okay in the trial, but not well enough with things coming to an end. Bosch watched a little bit of the trial, waiting to talk to his half-brother and something strikes him wrong. So he takes a look at the files and gives Haller to think about. But it’s clear to Bosch that the LAPD isn’t going to act on anything they turn up, they’ve got their man. So if anyone’s going to expose the judge’s killer, it’s going to be Bosch. While it’s to be expected that the detectives that arrested Haller’s client would resent Bosch’s involvement with the defense—but Ballard is antagonistic toward the idea as well. Just because these two respect each other and can work with each other, they’re not clones, they don’t agree on a lot.

Ballard’s called to the scene of a homeless camp, where someone had burned to death in a tent fire. She’s just there as a precaution, in case the LAFD decides it’s arson (and therefore homicide) instead of an accident. Having been brushed off—and afraid that the LAFD will do the same to the case—she takes a little time to turn up enough evidence to justify treating the case as a homicide. Then she was promptly removed from the case, so her old team at RHD could work it. Naturally, like every character Connelly has ever created, Ballard walks away, right? Yeah, I can’t type that with a straight face—she cuts a corner or two and works the case herself, making better progress than anyone else does, too. This brings her into contact with her old antagonist, now-Captain Olivas. He’s close to retirement, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens to her career after that.

But what gets the majority of the attention of the novel is the case that the Ballard and Bosch work together—Harry’s mentor (and father figure) has died and left him a murder book from 1990 that he’d, um, “borrowed” when he retired. John Jack wasn’t assigned to the case in 1990, it’s unclear that he did anything in 2000 when he took the file home. Bosch has no idea why he had it, but convinces Ballard to read it over and look into the case. They start working it, bringing them into contact with retired and not-retired gang members, digging up the past, and the question about why John Jack had taken the file.

Watching Connelly balance these mysteries/storylines is a treat—he does a great job of moving forward with each of them while bouncing back and forth between. I do think each case could’ve used 10-20% time than he gave them. But I could be wrong. They all wrap up satisfactorily, and There’s not a lot of time given for anything that isn’t case related, but we get a little bit. Both the personal material for Bosch (which is what he was waiting in court to talk to Haller about) and what we learn about Maddie make me really wonder what’s around their corners—and it appears we won’t learn anything in 2020 (unless we get a bit of an update in the Haller novel next year). Ballard’s material is always about her work primarily, but we do learn a little more about her life between her father’s death and her time with LAPD. I’m glad that Connelly hasn’t given us her whole biography, but man…what we have been given just makes me want more. Clearly, he’s making sure that fans of all three characters are going to have to come back for more as soon as he produces it.

I appreciated the discussion Bosch and Ballard had about some actions at the end of Dark Sacred Night, I have a friend who will rant at the drop of a hat about Ballard’s choices there (and I trust my email/text messages will get another one when he reads this post). I don’t think this conversation will satisfy him, but it’s good to see the pair acknowledge mistakes they made. While I don’t think either of them do anything quite as misguided in this book, but they both make a couple of reckless moves. Bosch’s always had a little bit of dirt on/leverage with superiors (even some history) to give him some coverage when he gets reckless. Ballard doesn’t. So when she goes maverick, it’s more nerve-wracking than it is when Bosch did/does it. A nice little bit of character work, and a good distinction between the two characters.

There’s a moment in every Michael Connelly novel, no matter how good it is, where something just clicks and suddenly I’m more invested in it than I am in almost any other book. I think I’ve talked about it before, but when That Moment hits—there’s nothing better. I get that with a lot of Thrillers/Mysteries (and even some books in other genres), but never as consistently as I do with Connelly. I knew that moment had hit when my phone told me it was time to put the book down and go into my office and I audibly groaned. How was I supposed to focus on anything else when Bosch and Ballard were on the hunt?

Lastly, and this is very likely going to be only a problem I had. Several right-hand pages in my copy that have very faint—practically missing—letters. It’s like it’d been left in the sun too long, or like when an inkjet printer is running out of ink. Please tell me that Little, Brown has better equipment than I do.

This isn’t the best Connelly can do, but man…it’s so good. Solidly put together, we get to spend time with all our favorites and it hits every button it’s supposed to. Connelly is one of the best around—The Night Fire shows why.


4 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly: Bosch and Ballard Team Up in one of Connelly’s best

Dark Sacred NightDark Sacred Night

by Michael Connelly
Harry Bosch, #20/Renée Ballard, #2

Hardcover, 433 pg.
Little, Brown and Company, 2018
Read: October 31 – November 1, 2018

In a series that’s over twenty books long, there’s a lot of character development, recurring faces and names, and the like — there just has to be. But on the whole, there’s not a lot of connective tissue between the books, most of what happens in one book stays in that novel, and the next very likely won’t even mention those events. Which is really kind of odd, when you think of it. But that’s not the case here — this picks up the action from Two Kinds of Truth a few months later and the central case of this novel is one that Harry had reopened in it. This really is a sequel to Two Kinds of Truth in a way that Connelly really hasn’t given us since The Poet/The Narrows.

LAPD politics has moved Lucia Soto off from the case that Harry asked her to pick up — a murder of a fifteen year-old prostitute, Daisy Clayton — so she can devote time to something more pressing, but Harry doesn’t have to play that game. His own work on that cold case brings him back to the Hollywood Station, where he tries to look at some old files (without anyone knowing what he was up to). He’s caught by our new friend, Renée Ballard. Renée being the curious type quickly figures out what he’s looking into and pushes her way into the investigation — unlike Soto, she has time; unlike Harry, she has standing; it’s really the best thing that could happen for the case.

While she’s poking into this cold case and developing some sort of relationship with Harry Bosch — Renée has her own active cases, and regular Late Show duties to perform. I really like the way we get several little cases along the way with her in these two books — sure, there’s the big murder mysteries, but there’s also a robbery, a rape allegation, and other crimes that she has to deal with. This adds variety to the book (as it did in The Late Show), a touch of realism, and gives the readers multiple ways to see her in action.

Harry also has an official investigation to pursue — a cold case in San Fernando is heating up thanks to Harry’s work uncovering a witness. His prime suspect is now a high-ranking member of a pretty serious gang and the consequences for this witness are potentially huge — and things go quickly wrong with this case. So wrong that Harry’s future with SFPD — and his own safety — are in jeopardy.

There are so many balls in the air in this novel that it’s a testament to Connelly’s skill that they never get confused, he devotes time to each as he should, in a way that does justice to each storyline and the book never feels over-populated. If Dark Sacred Night had nothing else going for it, just the construction would be enough to commend it. But there’s so much more to commend the novel, too. There’s a little levity, a lot of darkness, a lot of solid procedural material, a couple of bent rules, and some satisfying story telling — just to name a few of the commendable things. I’m leaving a lot off that list, if only for reasons of space and time.

There’s one criminal here — I’m trying not to spoil anything — who spouts off about his victims not being anyone, of not counting. He’s the philosophical opposite of Harry’s “Everyone counts” mission. It’s an excellent way to highlight just what makes Harry — and maybe Renée — tick and what separates them and some of the gray areas they walk in from those on the other side of the law. We have multiple murderers in this book for whom their victims are just tools, just objects, things go be used. While for Harry, Renée, and those like them — these are people with hopes, dreams, pain and suffering that need to be protected, defended and avenged.

A downside for me was how little non-case work time we got with Renée. Harry had time with Maddie, Cisco and Elizabeth in addition to all the police. Renée got almost no time with Lola, nothing with her grandmother, and only a little time with anyone outside of the Hollywood Station that wasn’t involved in a crime she was investigating. I liked her non-police world just as much as I like Harry’s and wish we’d have gotten time in it.

Like many, I knew that Bosch and Ballard would team-up eventually. But no one expected it so soon. Before reading this, I’d said that I would’ve liked another book or two just to get to know Renée a bit more before bringing Harry in. However, having read this — I’m glad it happened now (still, wouldn’t have minded the other). Having the two of them together emphasizes the non-Bosch-ness of Renée, which is good. Also, it gives her someone she can count on, not overly-influenced by her history, department politics, or any of the nonsense that will follow her for the rest of her career. This also gives Harry a way away from cold cases and San Fernando. Altogether, it’s a smart move on Connelly’s part. Now I guess we just wait on the inevitable involvement of Mickey.

Between the merging of the two worlds, the strong emotional tie Harry has to Daisy and her mother, the upheaval the other case brings to his life, and the continued development of Renée Ballard as a character — there’s just so many positives to this book that it’s hard to enumerate them all. I think this is the best book that Connelly has done — in any of his series — in years. It’s been ages (if ever) that he’s had a clunker of a novel, but this one seems more effective, more entertaining than most. It’s just so well done. This is a must-read for Bosch fans, Renée Ballard fans, Connelly fans or anyone who likes seeing one of the masters of the genre at the top of his game.

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4 1/2 Stars

The Late Show by Michael Connelly

The Late ShowThe Late Show

by Michael Connelly
Series: Renée Ballard, #1

Hardcover, 405 pg.
Little, Brown and Company, 2017

Read: July 17 – 22, 2017


Det. Renée Ballard works the graveyard shift out of the Hollywood Station, nicknamed the Late Show. She and her partner, the veteran detective John Jenkins, are basically place-holders — they handle the initial investigation of a crime (or sign off on a suicide) and then hand off their notes to one of the other detective squads that work days. It’s not demanding work — Jenkins likes it because there’s almost no overtime, and he can go home and be with his sick wife during the day. Ballard is stuck on the Late Show because she made some political waves a couple of years back, she couldn’t be fired over it, they could just make sure she found the prospect of another line of work appealing.

We meet Ballard on a pretty eventful night, she and Jenkins look into an elderly woman’s report of her purse being stolen and people using her credit cards; the vicious assault of a transvestite prostitute; and are involved in a minor role following a night club shooting. She and her partner are supposed to be turning over their involvement in these cases to someone else, but Ballard just can’t let go. She works the murder under the radar (as much as she can), gets permission to keep at the assault (which should not be construed as her investigating it according to Hoyle), and is brought back into the robbery organically — I stress this because it’s not all about Ballard skirting regulations, she works within (or near) the system.

Connelly constructs this like a pro — weaving the storylines into a good, cohesive whole. Each story feels like it gets enough time to be adequately told (without the same amount of space being devoted to each), there’s no grand way to connect them all into one, larger crime (which I almost always enjoy, but this is a bit more realistic), while something she learns on one case can be applied to another.

There’s one point where I thought that a plot development meant “oh, now we’re going to wrap things up now — cool.” Which I never would have thought if I bothered to pay attention to which page I was on, but it still seemed like the point that most writers would wrap it up. Instead, Connelly plays things out the way you expect, and then uses that to turn the novel in a different direction.

The book is full of nice little touches like that — Connelly’s been around enough that he knows all the tricks, knows all the plays — he can give you exactly what you think he will and then have the result come up and Connelly’s you.

In the future, I’d like to see a little more about Jenkins — but then again, how much did Connelly really develop Jerry Edgar or Kiz? Still, this is a new series, so he can develop things a bit more — I don’t think there’s a lot that can be done with Jenkins, but he can be more than just the guy who splits paper work with her. I hope that [name withheld] doesn’t become Ballard’s Irving, but I can think of worse things that might happen, so I won’t complain. I also hoped I’d get out of this with only 1 bit of comparison to the Bosch books. Oops.

The best thing — the most important thing — to say here is that Renée Ballard is not a female Harry Bosch; all too often, an established crime writer will end up creating a gender-flipped version of their primary character — basically giving us “X in a skirt” (yeah, I’m looking at you, Sunny Randall). This isn’t the case here. There’s a different emotional depth to Ballard, different lifestyles, different aspirations. Sure, she’s driven, stubborn, and obstinate, just like Harry — but name one fictional detective that isn’t driven, stubborn and obstinate. Readers don't show up in droves for slackers. Is there plenty of room for development and growth for Ballard in the future? Oh yeah. She's not perfect by any means (as a fictional character or as a person). But what a great start.

Same can be said for the series, not just the character — this book does a great job of capturing L.A. (an aspect of it at least), has a great plot, with enough turns to keep the reader satisfied, and a final reveal that's truly satisfying. The last thing that Connelly really needed was to start something new — but I'm glad he decided to.

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4 Stars