The first thing longtime Michael Connelly fans will notice when picking up The Night Fire is that subtitle: a Renée Ballard & Harry Bosch novel. Ballard, first introduced in 2017’s The Late Show, has been slowly assuming the mantle of the expanding Connelly-verse, a clear signal that change just isn’t in the air, its inevitable. It’s not even the first time Ballard’s name has taken the lead over the more famous Bosch (only one has a hit show on Amazon, you know).
Still, the switcheroo between detectives prominence serves as a kind of literary osmosis, easing fans expecting more from their grizzled, older white male detective but instead getting a much younger, part Polynesian (i.e. high yellow) female one instead.
Things open on a dour note, the funeral of Detective John Jack Thompson, Bosch’s mentor and a legend in the LAPD. The setting leads Bosch to recall how actor Tyrone Powers died of a heart attack while filming the movie Solomon and Sheba, noting (with a hint of foreshadowing) that “… it wouldn’t be a bad way to go – doing what you loved.” Powers was just 44 at the time; Bosch, on the other hand, is almost 70 and fresh from surgery to replace his knee and cane in hand, isn’t getting any younger.
Worse, blood taken during the procedure led to a diagnosis of CML (Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia), almost certainly from a batch of radioactive cesium while tracking down a dirty bomb (see 2007’s The Overlook).
While visiting Thompson’s widow Bosch learns his old mentor has left him a present – or a curse – from beyond the grave: an old murder book he’d lifted before retirement that wasn’t even his. Murder books, as observant Bosch fans know, are collections of crime scene photos, witness statements, photos and other relevant data to a murder investigation. They’re often the only link between unsolved cold cases and any chance of putting them to bed. John Jack retired back in 2000, meaning he’d had this particular murder book in his posssestion for almost twenty years.
That John Jack had snatched one from the LAPD meant something, though given he’d held onto the stolen book for almost two decades meant something, too. Was he trying to solve the case himself – or protect someone?
It’s his newfound illness, which doctors tell him is treatable by chemotherapy, that puts him back in touch with his half-brother Mickey Haller, i.e. The Lincoln Lawyer, as he needs help securing a legal settlement to help cover any costs his medical treatment could ring up. Haller had already helped Bosch navigate an “early retirement” from the LAPD, and isn’t above asking for a favor in return.
Haller is trying to free a mentally ill man accused of murdering a superior-court judge, and for this he needs Bosch’s help – and particular skillset – to work an angle the detectives in the case overlooked. Bosch knows how his involvement would look, working for the “other side”, as Ballard reminds him, even if that means his helping free an innocent man.
Things heat up, literally, when Ballard is called to investigate the remains of a body discovered in an area usually populated only by the homeless. Charred beyond recognition, all evidence seems to point to an accidental death when the victim’s kerosene heater tipped over, an open and shut case. Only Ballard isn’t convinced just yet. There’s got to be more to it, especially as homicides involving the poor and homeless seldom receive the attention they deserve.
Ballard is still working the graveyard shift (i.e. “The Late Show”) after being demoted when her accusations that a male superior officer sexually harassed her weren’t taken seriously. As much as this angers her, the isolation from her colleagues does give her time to think, and it’s while following up on the arson case she discovers a present from Bosch: John Jack’s pilfered murder book, complete with a Post-In message just for her. “Don’t say I never gave you anything.”
What caught Bosch’s eye, and would soon envelope Ballard, was the unsolved murder of John Hilton, a 24-year-old career criminal whose body was found alone in his car, a bullet wound to the head the likely result of a drug deal gone bad back in 1990. Hilton, who was white, was killed in an area known to be controlled by The Rolling 60s, a predominantly black gang that didn’t take kindly to a police presence. Again, Bosch wonders, why would his mentor keep this particular case to himself? Even if the victim’s personal life was a complete shambles, John Jack had taught Bosch better than that. “Everybody counted or nobody counted.”
While the cases being investigated never amount to anything more exciting or surprising than most in the Bosch catalog, it’s how well Connelly tracks the individual personalities of his major detective and a continually impressive Ballard that makes the series worth continuing with. Even when things seem too familiar, or even too convenient, the growing relationship between Bosch and Ballard manages to feel like a natural extension of the father/daughter dynamic we’ve that’s never quite been explored between Bosch and his actual daughter, Maddie, now in college and living away from home.
Ballard isn’t Bosch’s daughter, and has to continually remind him of this. Regardless of how his paternal instincts kick in when he sees his younger (off the books) partner disregard her health or make haphazard decisions, it’s always a fine line between patronizing and parentage with the two, a dynamic which gives Connelly’s writing a sense of urgency that’s a welcome change from his typical procedural style.
Pay attention and you’ll spot a few Easter eggs sprinkled throughout, like nods to the The Lincoln Lawyer movie starring with Matthew McConaughey (Connelly’s series is about to get its own TV series from David E. Kelley, presumably not starring McConaughey). In this fictional LA the real world manages to creep in, and HBO’s hitman-turned-actor drama/comedy Barry exists to help provide Ballard with crucial connection to help crack the case. Question: does Michael Connelly (the writer) exist in the Connelly universe? It worked for Stephen King. Heck, it’s still working for Stephen King.
One thing that did stand out was Connelly’s selective censorship when attempting to *ahem* recreate colorful street euphemisms. I realize the Bosch series – and may other sausage-factory fiction like it – thrive on supermarket shelves and airport bookstores, hence the desire to keep dirty language to a minimum, but the way Connelly renders certain dialogue almost feels like a trip back in time. F-bombs are dropped without a second thought, though whenever a suspect or witness dared to utter the most unmentionable word in the English language things become awfully chaste.
Connelly actually drafts this particular word as “N___”, a clear throwback to how publishers once rendered unpublishable words during the early and mid 20th century. Honestly, it’s not a word I need to read or even see, and while I’m grateful not to be subjected to the Sesame Street esque “N-word” alternative, in this post-Wire world it may be commercially (and critically) better for authors of a certain vintage like Connelly (i.e. older, whiter) to avoid the subject altogether or take a stand for their artistic integrity.
After such a tremendous building up of the various pieces throughout it’s disappointing how the ending becomes almost too convenient as it races towards a tidy conclusion, which I’ll be kind and call nothing less than a deus ex machina of circumstances and good fortune. The Night Fire probably won’t be anyone’s favorite Bosch novel, but it’s pretty clear we may not be getting many more of them in the future anyway. By accrediting this adventure as a Renée Ballard book first and Bosch second, Connelly continues to establish his new heroine as the driving force of the franchise moving forward.