The Beatles or The Stones, New York or LA, the Yankees or the Sox, the Maple Leafs or Les Habitants, Mac or PC, Gibson or Fender, Haller or Bosch? If you’re reading Michael Connolly, that has to be the question – Mickey Haller or Harry Bosch?
It’s hard not to see these two as the twin sides of Michael Connolly – Bosch voting Republican and happy to see the right guy ride the needle…duller the better, Haller a barely closeted lefty and shadowed by ‘there but for the grace of God….’ doubts. It’s not like there’s a whole lot of emotional space between them – they’re both riding the same cantilevering bronco of self-doubt, recrimination, emotional loss, and righteous anger but Bosch always gets tossed right and Haller left.
I’m not sure which of them is more like Connolly but despite politics that aren’t much like mine, Bosch seems to have a little more heft, a little more authority, the kind of guy you might not like much but you can’t help admiring. Bosch has an unerring moral compass even if he spends almost no time on the ethical calculus – he understands that the right thing is rarely complicated…it’s just hard to do. He does the hard thing. Haller would be a hell of a lot more fun but he’s the kind of guy that’ll hit you up for twenty at a party and forget to pay it back. For Haller, there’s always another side to the story and as long as there are at least two sides there’s room to follow self-interest up the middle. He can’t always do the hard thing.
So Michael Connelly does two things better than most crime writers – develop characters and write stories…you’d think that would be enough, wouldn’t you? His characters dance, glide, stumble, hobble, change speeds, push and get pushed, do the unpredictable without abandoning who they are – ultimately they do what they need to do for a book to work, they breathe. They are shaped and worn by time, by promises kept and broken, by chance and design, by sticks and stones, fist and bone and every single word. They are, for the time I am reading the book, more real than all but the handful of people that truly fill my life.
This remarkable thing is the least you have to do to be a good writer and Connelly does it. He pushes the bar a bit higher by writing stories that transcend the genre. Look, how many ways can you write about the dedicated cop tracking down the savage serial killer? Or the underdog lawyer defending the unjustly accused? When you read pedestrian writers you would think, not many. But in the hands of a master craftsman even the cliché can be twisted, contoured, stretched into unexpected if familiar shapes. Connelly is a master plotter. But it ends there.
Great artists get more from the materials than we imagined was there. The shape that emerges from the stone, the paint, the chords is beyond explanation, it can’t be captured by a description of the component pieces, what was kept and what was left…there are twelve notes and they been around a long time but Like A Rolling Stone happened once and won’t again. And words are like the stone and paint and chord. Only the greats can push them from the shadowed valley to the hilltop – turn potential into kinetic. The great writers understand that words are charged, they can attract and repulse and - linked, bound, shaped by an inspired hand - can rive the night as sure as any bolt of light.
But only a blessed few are given the gift and Connelly isn’t one of them. The whole is equal to the sum of its parts. The words usually do their duty and no more. They carry literal meaning and little else. There are few moments where a word or combination of words means more than I could have imagined, where the ink pulls against the page, trying to push past prose to sound and smell and touch, where language is a magician’s wand. Connelly is a craftsman not a conjurer. Even when he turns a phrase like ‘defender of the damned’ it comes from another source. That beautiful title ‘A Darkness More Than Night” wandered off from a Raymond Chandler line in The Simple Art of Murder,
The streets were dark with something more than night.
Don’t get me wrong - he has insights that can stop me.
“So, what’s it like, Terry? Being a father?”
“It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times...It’s like having a gun to your head all the time”
I’ve never read words that captured how I felt in the days after our first child was born, as well as those few. By the time our next two children were born it was no longer a surprise – I understood that I had been given unimaginable gifts but that from then on life was a hostage-taking. But in those first days it was a revelation. But even here it doesn’t sing.
This feels like an indictment and maybe it is – Connelly comes ninth on my list. But how many of us get measured against the best in the world? Who’s the best high school teacher in the world? The best waiter? The best bus driver? The best pharmacist? We’ll never know or care. But there are a handful of jobs (professional athlete, professional musician, US president) where if you do the work, it’s automatic – you’re compared to the greats and found wanting or the work is so mediocre you aren’t even granted the courtesy of being judged. So, a gifted writer gets held to a standard that is probably unfair… but for me, Connelly doesn’t stand with some of the authors that are still to come. So, he’s a writer I admire, just not a writer that stands comfortably with the greats.
Photo: Santa Monica Pier, Ca - Rainbow Rising by ™Pacheco
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I am an ecologist, conservation biologist and writer. I’m working on my 11th novel. The third, LONG TRAIN HOME was published by Level Best Books in the spring of 2022 and the sixth, BOOM BOOM'S LAST CALL, will release in the spring of 2023. Originally from Ottawa, Ontario I work at the University of New Brunswick and live with my wife Kim in Saint John, New Brunswick.
#6 James Crumley (Top 10 Crime Fiction Writer Series)
#7 - Don Winslow
(Top 10 Crime Fiction Writer Series)
#8 Dennis Lehane - (Top 10 Crime Fiction Writer Series)
#9 Michael Connolly
(Top 10 Crime Fiction Writer Series)
#10 Robert Crais - (Top 10 Crime Fiction Writer Series)
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