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dark sacred night

30 november 2020

There's a moment in Michael Connelly's Dark Sacred Night (2018) when Harry Bosch gets into danger – well, what of it, Harry's been in danger in a couple of dozen novels before. But you begin to wonder if Harry Bosch has been around long enough for his creator to think him expendable, which puts Harry in actual (fictional) danger, lucrative series hero though he be. The more so because Connelly's focus shifts, in Dark Sacred Night, toward a new partner for Bosch, who becomes the protagonist in her own right: a much younger LAPD detective maverick named Renée Ballard. This is a Ballard and Bosch novel early on, but how long before Ballard can fly solo and we don't need Bosch anymore?

I am two years behind in reading Connelly and deliberately not keeping up so I get a modicum of suspense out of these books, and clearly it's working. Dark Sacred Night is a tightly-constructed and suspenseful entertainment, quite up to Connelly's standards. Ballard reminds me of Kinsey Millhone, but with badge and gun; she is one of a large number of female sleuths produced recently by the creators of what were once exclusively male crime-fiction series, but she is not formulaic and she's a good, tough, sympathetic character.

Two mysteries run in parallel in Dark Sacred Night, both concerning cold cases (now Bosch's forte up in San Fernando, where he is a sort of honorary emeritus super-detective). In one, Ballard takes an interest in the death of a young prostitute that haunts Bosch (not least because the dead woman's mother has moved in with Harry, and he longs to bring her closure and justice). Ballard solves the case, but an alert reader will solve it long before she does, when a stray tangential character receives just a little more expository attention that he seems to merit.

In the other of the cold cases (the one that endangers Bosch), things get personal when a ganglord starts killing witnesses to his long-ago crimes, and then goes after Harry himself. This mess is eventually cleaned up by a shadowy sub-unit of the LAPD, the "SIS" (which exists in real life and has been the target of considerable critique). The SIS, in this novel anyway, operate by provoking suspects into making false moves and then mowing them down with gunfire. Connelly seems alive to the horror of these methods, but also adds

The unit enjoyed a completely opposite reputation within the rank and file of the department. … The SIS took violent offenders off the board. Whether they were taken alive didn't matter. … And there wasn't a cop on the force who wouldn't want to be a part of that. Never mind all the outside critics, the investigations, and the lawsuits. This was to serve and protect in its rawest form. (364)
I will stop short of aligning this intra-police perspective entirely with Connelly's, but it isn't quite detached from his voice either – it's a point in the novel where the narrating voice moves outside of Ballard's or Bosch's perspectives to speak in a more omniscient fashion. Ultimately Dark Sacred Night both romanticizes and shrinks from cowboy "justice." But what it says about the ethos of police work while trying to land on both sides of that fence is very troubling.

Connelly, Michael. Dark Sacred Night. New York: Little, Brown [Hachette], 2018.