After taking a year off from his usual characters like Harry Bosch and Mickey “The Lincoln Lawyer” Haller with Fair Warning, journalist Jack McEvoy’s long-overdue return, Michael Connelly is back to his crime solving bread and butter with The Dark Hours, the fourth Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch novel that’s considerably more focused on Ballard and less so with Bosch, and better for it.
Once again, the young detective faces a myriad of challenges, including tracking down serial rapists, solving a potential gang homicide, as well as struggling with a growing internal conflict threatening to upend everything she’s worked for. All this while trying to maintain her sanity in a world that seems to have lost itself. Once again, there’s only one person she can rely on. Whoever could that be? There are no coincidences in Michael Connelly’s universe, just inevitabilities.
It’s the twilight hours of 2020 in the City of Angels, and while most are anxious to ring out a disastrous year we’d all love to forget, third-watch detective Renée Ballard and her partner are working the latest of shifts – the dark hours – waiting on the call they know will come; a pair of serial rapists whom Ballard unofficially dubbed “The Midnight Men, who stalk their prey in the midnight hours, violating women with such brutal efficiency they leave no physical trace of themselves behind.
Having already investigated two of their previous attacks Ballard knew they’d strike again. One of their calling cards, however, is how they choose holidays to commit their crimes. And tonight, it’s New Year’s Eve.
Her attention is diverted when the call comes in to investigate a shooting in the vicinity, one possibly caused by the annual “rain of lead” – an unfortunate side-effect when excited gun owners celebrating the incoming year by firing into the air forget that what goes up must come down. The victim is Javier Raffa, a former gang member who managed to find a way out of the lifestyle. Looking over the forensics, Ballard suspects Raffa’s death was no accident, his killer using the noise and excitement of New Year’s celebrations as cover.
Connelly’s gifts as a writer have always been with his ability to lean into the real world to mine inspiration for the one he’s created, allowing his characters to coexist with events rather than reflect them. Here, it’s with Ballard’s growing conflict both within herself and with the LAPD, within the world of racially charged protests, a deteriorating homeless crisis, and, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic.
The riots that emerged in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minnesota left their mark across the country, and within a police department that appears more concerned with their image than serving the public trust. Ballard contracted (and survived, obviously) the virus, and continually presses Bosch, a leukemia survivor, to get “the shot” once it becomes available. It’s a lot to take in.
Whether Ballard’s increasingly frustrated internal dialogue is really echoing Connelly’s own is pure speculation on my part, but his surprisingly even-handed, logical cultural commentary is a breath of fresh air.
The Dark Hours isn’t a Harry Bosch novel, though he makes appearances throughout. This is a Renée Ballard jam first and foremost, and fans of the grizzled ex-detective should know this going in. Previous novels alternated between their respective narratives and methodologies, giving insight to how each approached their job and how their respective personalities influenced the case. Here, Bosch’s voice is largely silent, heard only when answering Ballard.
So where does this leave the series’ original detective, Harry Bosch? Connelly handles this intergenerational changing of the guard deftly, for the most part. Ballard, once the student, quickly rises to equal footing with Bosch (though never at the latter’s expense). Sometimes it’s a little more obvious, such as Ballard liking a song Bosch likes, John Legend’s version of Les McCann & Eddie Harris’ 1969 hit “Compared to What”.
“Some people say it was the first jazz protest song,” Bosch explains. Her reply, “I didn’t think you listened to anything recorded this century”, belies the fact that she didn’t recognize it, either.
The Dark Hours concludes on a note I hadn’t expected at first but, given everything our two detectives go through to get there, one that feels appropriately cathartic for its leads. The pandemic and social unrest seem to have put Connelly – and his characters – on an unexpected trajectory into an unknown future, one that’s far more interesting than it might have been. Four novels in, Renée Ballard finally comes into her own as a character that feels independently realized, and not just a gender/race-swapped version of Harry Bosch, while also keeping readers interested in seeing what lies ahead for the two characters.