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the black echo

8 january 2014

Stephen King wrote an introduction to the copy of Michael Connelly's Poet that I once read, and James Lee Burke wrote one for the copy I recently scored ("Special Low Price," to me, forty-four cents at a thrift store) of Connelly's first novel, The Black Echo. Both introductions stress the high literary quality of the respective novels, placing Connelly high in the pantheon not just of crime fiction but of American literature generally.

Now, The Black Echo is a pretty good Krimi. I read it slowly enough to appreciate its language and sense of detail – for about 350 pages; then I read it crazy fast because its plot accelerated to white heat. But when Burke calls it "great art" (xii) and says that it's "a classic, one that critics will refer back to when they talk about the evolution of crime writing" (xi) – I am tempted to run him down to the station and book him for hyperbole.

The Black Echo is a heist yarn situated in a police procedural populated by a rogue cop (Harry Bosch) who would be better suited, temperamentally, to the hard-boiled private-eye genre. Bosch (introduced in this 1991 novel) is a literary heir to Lew Archer, but unlike Archer (or Archer's forbear Sam Spade), his energies depend on the counterpoint between his square-peg personality and the uniform round holes in the workbench of the LAPD (a fictional force as corrupt as anything in the annals of James Ellroy, another key influence on Connelly).

Throw in some Vietnam flashbacks and a femme fatale and some mean-streets moralizing about today's youth, and you've got a potent mix. The Black Echo is long, compared to Connelly's later work (482 pages!), intricately detailed, extremely well-plotted. It's got backstories full of mysteries that we don't learn too much about, and it's got strong characters that fueled a series that continues to this day. It's got hard-boiled language:

The long tables assigned to burglary, auto, juvenile, robbery and homicide were all awash in paperwork and clutter. The detectives came and went. The paper never changed. (82)

So why isn't the novel a "classic" (even to a reader like me, who strongly believes that American crime writing is full of true classics, academic though I am)? It's not really that the plot is headlong and preposterous, since that's a feature of MacDonald, Chandler, and other SoCal-noir superstars. Nor is Connelly's later mean streak of conservatism much in evidence. Harry Bosch is an avenging-angel type, but at least in these early pages, he subordinates his need for justice to the demands of the law. (When femme fatale Eleanor Wish tells him that "justice is incidental to law and order" (383), Bosch demurs [a few chapters later], insisting that he plays the important stuff both by the letter and spirit of the law.)

No, I think the weak link is in how the Vietnam story and the love story in The Black Echo get integrated into the heist and procedural and hard-boiled material. The war material doesn't ring true; much more than the police world, it seems grafted in from other cultural sources, books and movies. And the romance, as too often in Connelly's work, is mechanical and unconvincing. Eleanor Wish, who will resurface later in the series, pops into Harry Bosch's life with apple-scented hair (it's conditioner, Harry) and they become soulmates within pages, as well as detective partners. We know there are twists ahead (this is one of those books that wraps up its main plot while you've still got 100 pages in your right hand): they got together too easily partly as part of Wish's hidden agenda. But there's something vacantly unconvincing about their relationship – and not just because Harry Bosch is a uncommunicative guy.

Still, I liked the book a lot; I'm just trying to explain why I disagree with Burke, and can't subscribe to his notion that "this novel will stand up against James M. Cain's" (xi). Though, come to that, it does stand up to most of Cain's – just not to The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity. No disgrace in that.

Connelly, Michael. The Black Echo. 1991. New York: Grand Central [Hachette], 2012.