Following my review of book twenty something in the Harry Bosch series (“Two Kinds of Truth”) and the encouragement of several Michael Connelly fans, I have back-tracked to where it all began. “The Black Echo”, published in 1992, marks the introduction of the eponymous detective and is testament to the journey undergone by the main character and the polishing of the author’s style over the intervening years. Connelly is certainly prolific in his output (the latest in the series, number twenty four, is due out today), so I’m keen to understand what is it fuels such longevity and keeps the novels fresh for his legions of readers?
Crime, of course, remains the most popular form of fiction and the author’s brand of punchy, contemporary, thrilling suspense is a dynamic page-turner. Still, Hieronymus Bosch is no Hercule Poirot, or Endeavour Morse (save for bearing an extraordinary name), relying solely on his cerebral gifts. Rather, at least in this first novel, he is also an action hero, more in the mould of Dirk Pitt, a maverick, determined, driven even. Leastways, our introduction to Bosch lays the foundation of a backstory that has the reader immediately curious, about a man of some implied depth, cleverly told through the FBI file held by his temporary partner for this instalment, Special Agent Eleanor Wish and the involvement of Billy Meadows, a former fellow ‘tunnel rat’ in Vietnam.
The horror and brutality of subterranean warfare has echoes of other battles (for example, see the WW1 iteration described by Sebastian Faulks in ‘Birdsong’), but the ability of such experience to shape an individual is surely not in doubt. Bosch the loner, scarred by conflict, yet as a consequence, perversely equipped for the ‘war against crime’. A round peg in the square hole that is the LAPD, he is destined to rail against the system and hold himself accountable to a personal set of values and a conscience that confers far greater integrity. Just as well, since the vultures from Internal Affairs circle, convinced that Bosch is dirty and going down.
A body – it’s a familiar opening to a crime story, but make the victim less random and the cause not so clear-cut as a simple overdose and we’re in business. Create a link to an unsolved safety deposit box robbery, perplexing national agencies - a tunnelling job, perpetrated while Bosch was suspended and the stage is set.
Curiously Bosch has little in common with colleagues and has a ‘marmite’ personality, untroubled by what others think of him. But, he also has a formidable network borne of long service and a reputation for getting results, a trait begrudgingly acknowledged even by his superiors. However, an unexpected secondment to the broader FBI investigation sees Bosch operating in an unfamiliar agency with a new set of rules. It doesn’t suit him better, though in Eleanor Wish he finds a partner and useful ally.
As the evidence mounts and connects to Washington and the chaotic withdrawal of people and wealth from Saigon at the end of the war, it is clear that powerful forces are at work and disrupting the investigation with impunity, possibly from the inside. For once, the fact that Bosch trusts no one is a positive asset. In poignant scenes evincing Karmic symmetry, the detective is fighting for his life in a tunnel and looking for a final clue on the Vietnam memorial, seemingly unable to unshackle himself from the legacy of a futile, dark past.
I really enjoyed this book and I can understand the fascination cultivated among readers for the troubled and damaged soul that is Harry Bosch. I suspect in this opening novel we have glimpsed just the tip of the iceberg created by Michael Connelly and in common with the best of fictional sleuths, it is in the flawed character of Bosch that some of the most interesting aspects of the human experience may be revealed. Book 2 awaits!