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Dark Sacred Night (2018)
Book Reviews

Dark Sacred Night (2018)

The first pairing of Connelly’s Ballard and Bosch works well, setting up a fascinating shared literary universe.

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Long before the current “Golden Age of Television” taught us how binging entire shows in one sitting was a great thing one trick producers would use to keep our eyeballs glued to ‘the brand’ was by way of the “backdoor pilot”. This was how a new or existing characters were introduced directly into episodes of the original show, the idea being fans’ built in love of the source would transfer to the eventual spinoff show. Sometimes this worked out beautiful (All In The Family to The Jeffersons); others, less so (Happy Days to Joanie Loves Chachi).

With last year’s The Late Show, however, author Michael Connelly took the unusual step of introducing his latest character, Renée Ballard, the young journalist-turned-detective, in her own story and without the help of Connelly’s most successful creation, Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch. Perhaps this was an intentional choice after the awkward introduction of Mickey Haller, aka The Lincoln Lawyer, in which Connelly made the classic Star Wars error of not just making the ethically questionable attorney a bit too close to the grizzled detective, but actually his previously unknown half-brother.

I say Star Wars theme because, when you’ve got the entire galaxy itself, it’s a good thing that everyone seems related. Perhaps a better analogy would have been the recent James Bond movies starring Daniel Craig, where poorly constructed storylines retconned 007’s bald iconic supervillain Ernst Blofeld into his – wait for it – previously unknown half-brother! It would almost seem like a parody had Austin Powers hadn’t already done the same thing…thirteen years prior.

Dark Sacred Night is that pairing, and comes a lot sooner than most probably expected. Right out of the gate you’ll know where Connelly’s priorities lay, that this isn’t going to be a partnership of equals, at least not yet. The first clue is right in the subtitle: “A Ballard and Bosch Novel”, meaning our fresh new hero takes the lead over the noticeably older, greyer detective who’s well past retirement age – and following the letter of the law.

Ballard is still working the unenviable “late show” shift after her accusing her superior of sexual assault, resigned to investigating twilight hour crimes when most people are home asleep. However, she seems to have an almost preternatural gift for solving strange cases without breaking a sweat. When an obese woman is found dead in her bathroom, all signs pointing to homicide. Within minutes of showing up Ballard is able to deduce from the clues, with an almost Sherlock-like precision, she’s less a victim of homicide than than shame and mere coincidence. It’s also a reminder to always feed your cat, otherwise they’ll take matters into their own, er, paws.

Here Connelly treads carefully, or at least carefully thread the needle. We live in thorny times, especially in the world of fiction writing, and optics matter – at least they do with some readers. As ridiculous as it might seem, allowing too much success for the obviously non-male, younger Ballard right out of the gate might open her up to charges of being a “Mary Sue”, the impossibly perfect female stereotype that looks great on paper, but allows little room for personal or character growth. See recent Star Wars films for a great example of this.

I only wish I were exaggerating, but this thread of postmodern feminism runs throughout Dark Sacred Night, and I imagine will continue in future Ballard adventures. How Connelly chooses to write Ballard in the future will determine how realistic, or pandering, a character she’ll become. Harry Bosch is such an obviously flawed creation, not above making crucial errors that jeopardize both his investigations and personal life. For Ballard to succeed we’ll need to see a similar representation, warts and all. As of now the verdict is: maybe.

Cutting to Harry Bosch, effectively phased out of the LAPD following a complicated series of events that would take entire novels to properly explain (hint, hint), is still assisting the smaller San Fernando Police Department with cold-cases to fill his days and nights. One case in particular, first gleaned in Two Kinds of Truth, still haunts him: the murder of Daisy Clayton, a 15-year old prostitute found unceremoniously dumped and apparently forgotten. The case continued to gnaw at him so much he tried to help the poor girl’s drug-addicted mother, Elizabeth, get clean, even letting her stay at his house. Observant fans will be tickled pink with the cameo of Dennis “Cisco” Wojciechowski from The Lincoln Lawyer, clearly setting up the wider Connelly shared universe we know is coming.

While investigating a brutal murder set up by the villainous Varrio San Fer 13 gang (an obvious stand-in for the very real, very cruel MS-13 gang) Bosch continues to look into the Clayton case, discovering he needs access to old LAPD files, which puts him on the road to intersect with Ballard. I won’t spoil their first meeting, but following a tense misunderstanding they recognize the advantages to working together – from the inside out. “There’s a lot I couldn’t do if I were still with the LAPD. But I’m not.”, Bosch tells her.

Ultimately, none of their individual cases add up to more than a pretense to simply have the two cross paths, weaving through LA’s seedier elements and denizens in their pursuit of justice – and the inevitable partnership we’ve been promised since the title page. Connelly’s gifts for taking readers on a literary trip through his beloved City of Angels darker, less tourist-friendly sides remains intact, including a hilarious dig at Stormy Daniels with porn-parody Operation Desert Stormy.

Connelly wisely keeps them apart much of the time, a trick that allows him to highlight their respective investigative skills at pivotal moments. It’s not clear they’ll would follow the Odd Couple-style pairing or become simpatico just yet, but the clues are there. For all their differences in age, gender, racial makeup and experience levels, both Bosch and Ballard share more than alliterative last names; both come from less than enviable beginnings, both have experienced pain and loss, both have personality quirks that make them ideal sausage-factory detectives.

They’ve even got exile in common, and perhaps owing to her own terrible experiences with the LAPD’s “good old boys” mentality, Ballard remains cautious but assertive when confronting perceived slights and prejudice within the system, especially of those concerning gender. One case puts this to the test when Ballard investigates a popular comedian accused of rape by a girl he just met at the comedy club. After learning of a male officer’s unwillingness to immediately process the case Ballard isn’t surprised by what she calls the “male bias”.

But just minutes later, after questioning the alleged victim and hearing contradictory evidence, from a female colleague no less, Ballard herself neglects basic diligence by considering the political ramifications of pursuing the case further, rushing to judgement without applying the same careful investigative work we’ve seen her use before. It’s only after the comedian, perhaps in anticipation of being extorted in the #MeToo Era, provides video of the incident that completely exonerates him that Ballard changes tactics, though her first instinct after seeing the video is to threaten the comedian (yet again) with arrest for his filming a sexual encounter without consent. Sigh…

Ballard’s conclusion is to equivocate both as “predators”, as though pursuing sleazy hookups is the same as falsifying a fake sexual assault allegation out of malice and possible extortion. Even after fabricating the entire story, which if pursued would have gotten the comedian arrest and perhaps ruined his career, the woman isn’t charged with a crime and even offered a ride home. Perpetrators of false allegations almost never face prosecution, and it’s not surprising that at no point does Ballard ever consider this injustice a product of “female bias”, both in herself and the system.

Though Dark Sacred Night teases either a triumphant, Avengers-like union or clash of personalities, in truth this initial pairing of Ballard and Bosch serves longtime fans more a slow-cooked origin story of intent of what’s to come. Bosch suggests they keep working together, an admission there’s no getting around nature; Bosch is older, slower and making rookie mistakes. To keep pushing forward he needs new blood, recognizing raw talent when he sees it. “You have that thing – maybe one in a hundred have it.” he tells Ballard. “You’ve got scars on your face but nobody can see them. It’s because you’re fierce. You keep pushing.” Bosch’s appeal may be a potpourri of cliches and buzzwords, but there’s truth in his words. Let’s see where this new partnership goes.