There’s a celebratory feel about prolific detective fiction writer Michael Connelly’s 30th novel; as though reaching that milestone isn’t reason enough to break out the champagne, the creator of Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch has decided to switch things up and focus on an entirely new character to keep anxious readers on their toes: introducing 32-year old Renée Ballard, a female journalist-turned-detective and star of the enjoyable new adventure in The Late Show.
But this isn’t displacement; Connelly’s famous detective is approaching 70 and has already long retired (among other things), and facing a growing list of health concerns that would bring down any normal septuagenarian, let alone a fictional supercop on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Last year’s novel, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, definitely made it known that change is afoot, and that all good things must come to an end. When and how Connelly decides to finally ‘retire’ Bosch from literary service is known only to him, but when that happens fans could have a new hero to look forward to with Ballard.
A key to Connelly’s longevity was that he never let his creations become the main focus of the mystery. As much as we root for Bosch, his personality was always secondary to whatever case he was on; his family life, passions, and other details were peppered throughout, often violently so, but Connelly has always been careful to never let readers forget it was authentic procedure and the mystery that took center stage.
This approach continues here, though some may find this dualistic method working against the autonomy of Ballard’s individuality. Bosch and Ballard may have little in common as character studies, but there’s little doubt both feel a little interchangeable in the grand scheme of things. Connelly’s penchant for showcasing accurate and logical police procedure is on full display, and while the narrative may have shifted from grizzled male detective to a younger female, there’s little to distinguish the net effect between the two. By creating another character working on the fringes of the system he’s still able to demonstrate that nothing beats a cop’s gut instincts.
We learn the essentials of Ballard’s background in time, but even these are doled out in drips throughout. She’s of mixed heritage, white and Hawaiian, and only moved to LA after the death of her father. Tragically, she’d been on the path to success when her boss, Lt. Robert Olivas, tried to force himself on her at an office Christmas party. It didn’t help when her trusted partner, Ken Chastain, refused to back up her allegations. Whether this was just “good old boys” club at work or politics didn’t matter; internal investigations, especially those of a sexual nature, were supposed to be private, but everyone knew about her accusations.
For this, she finds herself reassigned to the unenviable shift between 11 pm through 7 am – “the late show”. With her new partner, John Jenkins, she’d been reduced to writing up initial reports before turning them over to the day shift investigators. Even those crimes deemed “vampire cases” – ones needing worked at night – were denied to her. Ballard wanted more, and she deserved it.
More than anything, it’s Connelly’s beloved city of Los Angeles, even with its seedy underbelly and criminal malcontents, that remains the true star attraction. As a writer Connelly has shown uncompromising love for the city, and that’s not likely to change; Ballard knows “the turf and she knew the slang. It would never go away, no matter how many hours of sensitivity training cops were subjected to.” Bring it on.
Ballard’s debut can feel bloated at times as Connelly saddles her with not one, but several cases at once. Perhaps they’re connected, perhaps not; I won’t go into detail about any here, but therein lay the typical Connelly premise with our new hero using every trick in the book – some less noble than others – to cut through the red tape that might trip up less detectives. She also isn’t afraid to use her sexuality it needed. “If it could help persuade male officers to do what they were supposed to do, then she wasn’t above using it.”
Critically, Connelly makes Ballard’s first outing work on several levels. The first is establishing that her character exists in the same universe as his most famous creation, and by association Mickey Haller (aka The Lincoln Lawyer). Second is there’s no hamfisting association between his growing cadre of detectives and questionable legal counsel, at least not here. Interestingly, Connelly also establishes that Amazon’s BOSCH show, which he explains is based on the adventures of the ‘real’ detective, also exists in this world. Fans know he’s winked at them like this before with Matthew McConaughey and the Lincoln Lawyer movie.
Are we witnessing the expansion of the Michael Connelly Universe? How great would it have been to just call it it the MCU – but Marvel already has the copyright on that (please don’t sue!). I’m almost certain a casting call as to who will (inevitably) play Renée Ballard is in the cards.
Also critical to Ballard’s success is that The Late Show doesn’t serve as an origin story; with few exceptions, Connelly throws us right into the thick of things with an experienced detective who’s already been through much – and can probably take whatever comes her way. As controversial as it might sound, the concept of adding a younger, tough-as-nails female protagonist who isn’t afraid of anything and endowed with wisdom and skills far beyond her years has nearly become cliche in modern pop-culture (see: every marketable franchise out there). This trope has already begun to exhaust fans, the sad result of over-marketing colliding with good intentions.
Thankfully, Connelly is too good a writer to fall into this trap; Renée Ballard being a female isn’t a gimmick, as she’s hardly the first of her kind to appear in his fiction. Longtime fans can attest that Connelly has always populated his novels with strong female characters, and The Late Show isn’t even the first Connelly novel to feature a female protagonist; longtime fans will recall 2000’s Void Moon, which starred ex-convict Cassidy “Cassie” Black. We haven’t heard much of Black since then, though that’s probably for the best.
Themes, characters, and situations in The Late Show Connelly previously explored in 2015’s action-packed Bosch adventure The Crossing are on full display here, which could result in déjà vu for devout readers. No spoilers here, but even the most apologetic Connelly fan has to admit certain beats and scenarios are eerily similar in tone and execution (sometimes literally). I’ll be generous and assume this lifting was unintentional and the result of a tightly-packed schedule; Connelly wrote this alongside the next Bosch novel, Two Kinds of Truth, due later this year. Who wants to bet the two will conveniently cross paths, at least once, in the near future?