The Magazine

City of Darkness

Michael Connelly's mysterious Los Angeles.

Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By DAVID KLINGHOFFER
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"Chasing the Dime"
by Michael Connelly
Little, Brown, 400 pp., $25.95

WILLIAM J. BRATTON, having won his crime-fighting laurels in the first Giuliani administration, was recently inducted as the new chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. There was something discordant about the erstwhile top cop of New York City taking over in Los Angeles. The two cities are just so different.

It's not a question of statistics, though in L.A. violent crime is rising at an alarming rate, murders having vaulted upward by 27 percent since 2000. To get a sense of what makes the city unique in the arena of murder and mayhem, you have to read Los Angeles crime novels, a genre unto themselves, starting with the greatest practitioner of the art form, Raymond Chandler, and continuing through its current master, Michael Connelly.

Of course, if Bratton's record in New York is any indication of what Los Angeles might have to look forward to, then the very twistedness of the Los Angeles crime story may be in danger. The L.A. Times reports that Bratton would like to make the LAPD "an open department with no secrets." For L.A. residents, that's good news. But for those who enjoy crime from a safe distance, the dark soul of the city, including the tradition of Rampart-style police corruption, is something we'll miss.

But for now, there is still Michael Connelly, who, like Chandler, conveys an atmosphere of dread mixed with grit mixed with sunshine. His new novel, "Chasing the Dime," is a bit of a departure. Previous books tracked the career of a Philip Marlowe-esque homicide detective, Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch. Cynical and hardened on the outside, compassionate and righteous on the inside, Bosch is someone even a heterosexual male can admit is sexy. The name of the character was not chosen at random. In one novel, "A Darkness More than Night," paintings by the fifteenth-century Dutch painter of supremely violent and surreal landscapes are clues in solving a grotesque murder that someone wants to pin on Harry.

In Connelly's last book, "City of Bones," Harry Bosch revealed the story behind the bones of an abused 12-year-old boy buried in the Hollywood hills. The book came out just as the U.S. Park Police were trying in vain to figure out how the bones of Chandra Levy ended up scattered in Washington's Rock Creek Park. Bosch proved to be a whole lot swifter than the capital cops. Unfortunately, at the end of the book, he seemed to have made a conclusive decision to retire. We shall see if Connelly brings him back.

In "Chasing the Dime," Connelly evokes the same Boschian cityscape, invoking the painter by name to underline the point. But the protagonist Henry Pierce--a surfer-turned-chemist seeking a way to harness molecules as super-microcomputers-- believes he has escaped the sun-heated gloom by retreating into his Santa Monica lab: "The outside world might be dark and in shambles. War and waste. A Hieronymus Bosch painting of chaos. Women selling their bodies to strangers who would take them and hide them, hurt and even kill them. But not in the lab. In the lab there was peace. There was order."

So thinks Henry, until an apparent telephone-company glitch results in his receiving call after call for a woman named Lilly, an "escort" listed on a sleazy website for "VIPs Only." It becomes clear that something bad has happened to Lilly. Henry, whose sister was lost to drugs and prostitution when he was at Stanford, quickly becomes obsessed with rescuing Lilly, if she's still alive. Within 24 hours he has uncovered an apartment in Venice (the California Venice, just south of Santa Monica) where the bed is stained with month-old blood that, as police will confirm, is Lilly's. Problem is, the cops are convinced that Henry killed her.

HE'S GOT VERY LITTLE TIME to prove his innocence, which means entering the $10-billion-yearly electronic sex industry, and more generally the parallel universe of L.A.-style death and decay, which he thought he had locked out by locking himself into his laboratory. There's a lot at stake, Henry's life as well as a potentially world-changing molecular computing system--the "dime" of the book's title--that his company has invented and that someone may want to steal or otherwise put a halt to.

Connelly's fiction isn't as densely evocative as Chandler's, not by a long shot. He is a quieter type of writer, but he has some Chandler-style evocations of people--a woman, the mother of a prostitute, whose voice sounds "like a broom sweeping a sidewalk," a high-tech entrepreneur with a "smile as wide and hard as the concrete bed of the L.A. River."

Most enjoyable of all is the way Los Angeles itself emerges as a character. The Pacific, such a different ocean from the Atlantic--wider and deeper, somehow wiser, but with a calm that conceals unfathomable anger--is never distant from the action. Henry is always peering out on its "blue-black water"--yes, that's exactly how it looks--set against "the burnt-orange color of a smoggy sunset," as if he's hoping the waves will yield up Lilly's poor, broken body.

Even so, Connelly is mainly interested not in painting word portraits, but in spinning out a tale that will keep you with your nose between the pages. He tells a story better than Chandler. Notoriously indifferent to keeping plotlines straight, the latter couldn't really be bothered with storytelling. On page 41, another Internet escort tells Henry that Lilly is "long gone and whatever happened to her . . . just happened. That's all." From about this point, like Henry, we're hooked. Connelly effortlessly builds suspense up to and including a climax that, while not completely satisfying, is definitely surprising. You don't see it coming, yet it makes sense.

ANOTHER POINT OF COMPARISON: In their overlapping L.A.-centered realities, both writers take it as a given that, for all the hurt and cruelty, ultimately justice is done. There is indeed an order in Creation, however difficult it may be to discern. Toward the end of "Chasing the Dime," Henry sits "behind the wheel [of his car] thinking about what he had done, about his sins. He knew he got what he deserved. Most people did."

What does Michael Connelly deserve? No, he isn't quite on the level of Raymond Chandler, but given that very little in literature is on the level it was fifty years ago, he should be recognized as a worthy successor.

David Klinghoffer is the author of "The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism," to be published by Doubleday in April 2003.