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For author Michael Connelly, crime pays

The man who created police detective Harry Bosch has turned out 18 bestsellers so far. It all started with a screening of The Long Goodbye at dollar movie night in Gainesville. 

By Colette Bancroft, Times Book Editor
Published October 25, 2007


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Festival of Reading

Michael Connelly will appear at the Times Festival of Reading at 11:15 a.m. Saturday in the Campus Activities Center at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

- - - 

ST. PETERSBURG - Michael Connelly's multimillion-selling career as a crime novelist started with dollar movie night.

In the 1970s, Connelly was a student at the University of Florida, majoring in journalism and minoring in creative writing. One night he went to the dollar movie at the student union: director Robert Altman's 1973 version of Raymond Chandler's novel The Long Goodbye.

Sipping a Coke in a quiet dining room at the Renaissance Vinoy on a recent afternoon, the soft-spoken Connelly, 51, recalls the impact the film had on him.

"Filmmakers loved it, but Chandler fans didn't," he says, because the film made major changes in how the story ended.

The ending irked purists who admired Chandler, one of the godfathers along with Dashiell Hammett of American tough detective fiction. But Connelly didn't care about that then. The movie so knocked him out he began reading all of Chandler's novels about hard-boiled Los Angeles private detective Philip Marlowe.

"I can trace the reason I'm doing this to seeing The Long Goodbye," Connelly says.

"This" is writing 18 bestselling novels in 15 years, starting with The Black Echo in 1992.

It won an Edgar Award for best first mystery novel and launched Connelly's compelling series character, Los Angeles police detective Hieronymous "Harry" Bosch. Connelly has written a dozen more Bosch novels, including his most recent book, The Overlook, which appeared first in serial form in the New York Times Magazine.

He has also written five nonseries novels, most recently The Lincoln Lawyer in 2005, and published a collection of his journalism - between that revelation at the dollar movies and his success as a novelist, Connelly spent about 14 years as a reporter, covering crime and courts for newspapers in Florida and California.

Connelly's novels have won widespread critical acclaim for their lyrical prose, complex characters and timely, socially conscious plots, as well as their intimate portrait of the city of Los Angeles.

Mysteries may be a popular genre, but some writers transcend the boundaries of the form. Connelly is one of them. He says of writing fiction other than mysteries, "I never say never.

"But whatever I want to say, I can say within the form."

In the City of Angels

Born in Philadelphia, Connelly moved with his parents and five siblings to Fort Lauderdale when he was 11. His father was a builder and "a frustrated artist."

When, as a college student, Connelly decided he wanted to be something as risky as a writer, "I didn't want to tell him. But he was nothing but encouraging.

"My father's gift to us was teaching us about putting yourself in a position to succeed."

Connelly did make his living writing, first as a journalist. He covered crime for newspapers in Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale; a magazine story about plane crash survivors made him a Pulitzer Prize finalist and propelled him to the Los Angeles Times.

He was in Chandler's city, the land of mystery that had fascinated him for years. It also is the setting of novels by the other two writers he places among his personal "big three": Ross MacDonald and Joseph Wambaugh.

Not long after he arrived, Connelly says, he went to pay homage to Chandler at the High Tower Apartments. The complex is a Streamline Moderne style landmark where Chandler once lived (so did Altman's Marlowe).

Connelly met the manager and asked him to let him know if Chandler's old apartment ever became available.

"Ten years later this guy tracked me down," he says. He had already left the Los Angeles Times by then, but a copy editor put the manager in touch.

Connelly rented the apartment for several years, using it to write in while he was in Los Angeles and employing it as a setting for his novel Echo Park. Its value, he says, was "more nostalgia than reality - it didn't have air conditioning."

Connelly wrote his first three "and a half" Bosch novels while still working as a reporter, after having written two books that he never even tried to publish. The main characters in those two were a lot like himself, he says, while he deliberately made Bosch "nothing like me."

Despite his admiration for Chandler's and MacDonald's private detectives, he followed Wambaugh's more realistic route and made Bosch a police officer. "I don't know about you, but as a reporter I never wrote about private eyes solving murders and stuff."

Even after his books became successful, Connelly says, he worried about quitting his reporting job because it gave him access to the police. But, he says, "I was somehow blessed with greater access to the police department than I had ever had."

Perhaps, he says, because his writing is fictional, it's less threatening to police. "I always wanted to write about the spirit of what that job is like, the quiet nobility of it. It's thankless if you do it right, and all the cameras come out if you do it wrong."

Bosch's family tree

Connelly needed a Los Angeles roost like High Tower because in 2001 he moved to the Tampa Bay area with his wife and young daughter, to be closer to their families.

Living in Florida hasn't reduced Connelly's fascination with Los Angeles. He says he finds himself "doubling my efforts to use the city as a character," and he thinks he has written some of his better L.A. novels since moving to Florida.

"I haven't really been away long enough to miss it," he says, noting that the longest he has been away from Los Angeles is six weeks.

Connelly says he feels no desire to write books set in Florida (although Bosch made a trip to the bay area in The Last Coyote). But he has found inspiration here, notably for The Lincoln Lawyer, a legal thriller whose main character, Mickey Haller, is a defense lawyer who often works out of his car.

He's not down on his luck, Connelly says. Los Angeles County has a network of far-flung courthouses, and many successful lawyers there find it maximizes their billable hours to hire a driver and work in the back seat between court appearances.

Haller's story grew out of tales Connelly heard from lawyer friends in Florida and from the experience of shadowing his former college roommate, who is now a defense lawyer.

Haller's name probably rang a bell with Bosch's fans. Bosch never knew his father, but he knows who he was: famous criminal defense lawyer J. Michael Haller, who was also Mickey's father. (And yes, that would have made Bosch's name Harry Haller, just like the identity-seeking main character in Herman Hesse's novel Steppenwolf.)

The half brothers will both appear in Connelly's next novel. Bosch is 57 now, Connelly says, and can't realistically stay on the force much longer. "I don't want to skip a year without a Bosch book" in the meantime.

Connelly says he doesn't outline his plots, but "I generally know where they're going.

"With the new book, for the first time I don't really know who did it. It could be any one of a number of people. I don't even know if Mickey knows."

The book will no doubt include some of Connelly's trademarks, such as using music to define mood and character. His publisher made a promotional CD of Bosch's favorite jazz numbers. "Music is a very cool way of saying something about character."

He also likes to use the names of real people who are friends or sources for his characters. "They're little tests, to see if they're really reading my books.

"Most of them pass."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com.

 


 

[Last modified October 24, 2007, 19:16:17]


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