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A cold case that warms a cop’s heart

  • New York Times News Service
  • Published Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, at 7:46 a.m.

“The Black Box” by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown & Co., 403 pages, $27.99)

Harry Bosch of the Los Angeles Police Department has a birthday during the course of “The Black Box.” But as Michael Connelly’s readers well know, Harry’s not a party guy. He comes home to find that his 16-year-old daughter, Maddie, has made him a culinarily ambitious birthday dinner.

“Wow, smells good,” and, “Can’t wait,” are among the comments he makes to Maddie about her cooking. Harry’s not much of a conversationalist either.

But Maddie hits a bull’s-eye with her father because she has seasoned the meal with Pepper: Art Pepper, whose jazz recordings are among Harry’s favorite things in the whole wide world. In the same mellow spirit she serves Harry his favorite beer. Party over. Harry can’t resist the urge to snoop through his daughter’s backpack and find out whether she bought the beer using fake ID. She didn’t, but her brooding, suspicious father sure knows how to kill a mood.

The more important celebration involving “The Black Box” is that it is marks 20 years of Harry Bosch books, the first of which was “The Black Echo,” in 1992. It’s also Connelly’s 25th novel, because he writes them at an unstoppably fast clip. Too many of them show signs of haste. But “The Black Box” is a standout, thanks to thoughtful plotting, the kind that ultimately jigsaws all the pieces of a story into place. And the book’s 20-year time span gives it bigger ambitions than some of Connelly’s more tossed-off efforts have had.

The start of “The Black Box” finds Harry Bosch as a street cop on the riot-torn streets of South Central. He is trying to help subdue the Rodney King riots. And he is exceptionally aware of race for two additional reasons. First, Harry is the only white cop in his unit, and his colleagues warn him to be careful. Second, the woman whose corpse Harry finds in an alley was Anneke Jespersen, a Danish blonde, instantly nicknamed “Snow White.”

The gangbanger neighborhood in which she was killed does not offer up easy answers. Hoods with nicknames like 2 Small and True Story are grilled at first, but the investigation goes nowhere. And then 20 years go by.

The box of the title is supposed to contain whatever evidence exists in this very cold case. There’s not much: just a bullet casing, and that’s about it. But never underestimate the vengeful energy that Harry brings to any miscarriage of justice, or the way two decades of police work have toughened him. Harry has soon used the casing to trace the murder weapon — and discovers that the Beretta used to kill Anneke has a mysterious history of its own.

This may sound small, but it’s about to go global. What’s most enjoyable about “The Black Box” is Connelly’s gift for smoothly escalating a back-alley shooting into an international conspiracy, as if this were a perfectly normal exposition trick. The only nonspoilers that can be mentioned here are that the dead woman was a photojournalist, and that her killing may not have had much to do with the South Central riots at all.

It is always important for Connelly to turn Harry’s battles into grudge matches. Vendettas get him going in the morning. So in “The Black Box,” for the umpteenth time, he finds himself subject to in-house disciplinary charges while he’s in the midst of his investigation. His job may be in jeopardy, but Connelly’s Bosch franchise is not. Maddie can’t wait to grow up and make the Bosch-LAPD connection a multigenerational thing.

There are books in this series that suggest Harry can map out every deserted lot in Los Angeles from memory; he certainly knows this terrain inside out. But “The Black Box” kicks him out of his comfort zone, sending him inland to a part of California he doesn’t know, where he’s more apt to find a rural almond orchard than a Crip or a Blood.

“The Black Box” re-establishes Harry’s primacy among Connelly’s assorted creations. Mickey Haller, aka the Lincoln Lawyer, is always good for raffish excitement and a fine character in his own right. Terry McCaleb of the FBI got Clint Eastwood into a Connelly movie (“Blood Work”), but he is now departed. The women in Connelly’s various series tend to bring out their men’s maudlin sides, and none of them have anything like Harry’s stature or curb appeal. By now Hieronymous Bosch — that’s his name, but call him Harry — has become Connelly’s most durable, well-entrenched creation, if a heavy-hearted one. Hey, Harry, it wouldn’t kill you to lighten up sometimes. But thanks for believing so fervently in justice. Here’s wishing you a happy birthday.

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