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Michael Connelly: The Late Show review - mesmerising and believable characters | reviews, news & interviews

Michael Connelly: The Late Show review - mesmerising and believable characters

Michael Connelly: The Late Show review - mesmerising and believable characters

Connelly's LA procedural series gains a powerful new female protagonist

A view of the city: Michael ConnellyMark DeLong

Readers have been committed fans since 1992, when the sometime crime reporter Michael Connelly turned novelist.

Connelly’s best-known sequence has featured, over three decades now, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) detective Hieronymus Bosch, also known as “Harry” – Vietnam veteran, haunted by the past, and a man of the utmost original integrity – in gritty police procedurals lifted high above the ordinary by mesmerising and believable characters and a passion for the southern California setting.

In 2005 the cast of the series was amplified by the Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller, a low-rent attorney operating out of his car, and Bosch’s half-brother (thereby hangs a tale). They share some defining characteristics: a subversive iconoclasm, richly imaginative flexibility in terms of the rules, and a commitment to the greater good as they see it.

Michael Connelly: The Late Show reviewThe Late Show introduces a new protagonist – a woman, to boot: Renée Ballard, assigned two years before the opening of the novel to the graveyard shift after she complained about sexual harassment from lead lieutenant Olivas who headed her unit in the élite RHD (Robbery-Homicide-Division). It certainly is a late show, but without the benefit of any wise-cracking host: the shift is 11pm-7am, and the three days – or five: the reader feels almost as sleep-deprived as Ms Ballard, losing track of days and nights – almost blur into one. Ballard can’t stop and, keeping going on caffeine and adrenaline, works under the radar during the day. 

Along the way we have a club shootout (five dead), a horribly sadistic attack on a homeless transgender prostitute found left for dead in a parking lot, a cop brought down with all kinds of implications for the LAPD, another policeman illicitly giving information to a crime journalist, unexpected murders, and a credit card scam combined with burglary. Nothing is ever quite as it seems, and there is a real twist at the end.

The complexities of different teams and units are intertwined with different personalities, from Chastain, Renée Ballard’s partner when she worked in HRD, to Jenkins, her partner in the night shift who chose it so he could be at home with his cancer-ridden wife in the day. Jenkins likes paperwork, not too much trouble, and the surety that he can go home when the shift ends. Ballard is the opposite: work is her life, except for her devoted companion, a cross-breed pit bull rescue dog, Lola. She has few friends she trusts, and an occasional personal hook-up for physical pleasure, but even there disillusion beckons. Her high intelligence, empathy with victims, intuition and ingenuity all add up to a character as sympathetic and interesting as the great Harry Bosch. Her gender adds another dimension – it is tough in the mostly male world she inhabits, but Connelly is not overtly cashing in on a feminist agenda.

Throughout the sense of the traffic, the beaches, the early-morning fogs, moving about in the different neighbourhoods of what for shorthand we call LA, makes Ballard’s journeys vividly physical. We go all the way to the University of California in Irvine, Orange County, spend time in various police bureaus in LA with lots of office politics, in coffee shops and fast food outlets, and get driven about not only in police cars and rentals but in Ballard’s own customised van (of which more anon).

The best of Connelly’s police procedurals work because they are character-driven, very specific as to context and geography, and convince you of their authenticity

One neighbourhood, a crucial component in the sexual sadism crime Ballard is investigating, has expensive upside-down houses, built into the hills with bedrooms on the ground floor; another suspect has a house with a yellow door and drives a yellow Camaro (I didn’t know, either: a Chevrolet sports car). Detail piles on detail as we glimpse hot-desking in the various police offices, with paper files and computer complications, as Ballard works three complex cases with logic, insight, and an occasional leap into the dark. When she bends the rules, we know more about what those rules are, including a whole department of police keeping an eye out for corrupt police (we even have a session with the Behavioural Sciences Unit which deals with traumatised police).

Her back story gradually emerges: mixed-race, brought up in Hawaii, witnessing her surfing-mad father taken by a wave when she was only 14, homeless for two years after her mother bailed out, until rescued and given a home by her octogenarian southern California paternal grandmother, Tutu, whose modest Ventura home is two hours from LA. That address supplies the information Ballard needs for such admin as her driving licence and personnel. For Ballard, in her mid-thirties, lives in her van, which contains a sleeping tent which she pitches on any beach she can, where she pursues her meditative but physically hard sport, paddle-boarding. She is tenacious, tough, and somehow immensely appealing, her flaws – an inability to compromise, or even forgive when at times perhaps she should – as fascinating as her high intelligence and competence, particularly striking when set against some of the burnt-out cases and time-servers among her colleagues.

Connelly is as adept at jugging myriad plot lines as Ballard is at keeping her multiple investigations going, while hiding some unorthodox methods from superiors who might thwart her, and figuring out, too, who – there is more than one candidate – wants her threatening talent out of the police force. There is even a fascinating showdown as her police nemesis offers her a coveted place back in the RHD division.

The best of Connelly’s police procedurals work because they are character-driven, very specific as to context and geography, and convince you of their authenticity. And although some goodies come to ends they do not deserve, we have the comfort that the main protagonist, Ms Renée Ballard, will survive to fight another day in, it is to be hoped, a sequel as fascinating as this first appearance. Immensely readable, The Late Show deserves the acclaim of that proverbial phrase: “I could not put it down”.

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