Writing an Aging Beloved Protagonist
By R. G. Belsky
Harry Bosch isn’t just getting older, he’s getting better. And Michael Connelly’s iconic LAPD homicide cop is again paired up with young female detective Renée Ballard in THE NIGHT FIRE, the latest in the bestselling and beloved Bosch series that has spanned nearly 30 years and also produced a hit TV show.
During a wide-ranging interview with The Big Thrill, Connelly talked about how much he loves writing the Bosch-Ballard partnership these days and why—unlike many other authors—he decided to have his now-retired Bosch character age in real time from book to book.
“I think it was the reporter’s instincts in me,” says Connelly, a former journalist who was still working as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times when he wrote his first Bosch books. “I came to this as a reporter and thought it was the best way to go. To show a character evolving/aging over time at the same place his city, the bureaucracy he was part of, his child, everything did the same.
“Bosch is aging. I am stuck with that and I think I am soon approaching the edge of reality where it won’t be believable that he is out there chasing bad guys. The plan was to introduce someone new and younger (Ballard), have them cross paths and realize they have the same fire inside. Bosch could partner, then mentor, then eventually pass the baton. Don’t ask me when that baton gets completely passed. I’m having too much fun with them working together.”
Let me say up front that I’ve personally been an unabashed Michael Connelly fan for a long time. I’ve read all 33 of his crime novels (many of them more than once), and THE NIGHT FIRE dramatically shows that Connelly is still at the top of his game.
Like many of Connelly’s books, it starts out with a seemingly simple premise: an old LAPD mentor of Bosch dies and leaves behind a murder book of an unsolved case that appears to be just a low-level drug deal gone bad. But that soon mushrooms into a complex series of events with far-reaching implications as Bosch and Ballard, a dogged detective relegated to the overnight shift after filing a sexual harassment complaint against an obnoxious supervisor, work tirelessly together to uncover the truth.
Connelly said that Ballard—who first appeared in 2017’s The Late Show and has now been paired with Bosch in two more books—is directly inspired by one person.
“Detective Mitzi Roberts, an LAPD homicide investigator, has been helping me with my books for several years, but it was only a few years ago that I learned that in a previous assignment she worked the midnight shift in Hollywood, known as the Late Show. I was immediately intrigued by the idea of writing about the beat because the detective most often works alone and depends on patrol officers as ‘partners’ and everything is on the table. Any case—from lost dogs to murder—the late show detective rolls on and I believed that would be something new for me to write about. And why not make it a woman when I had a woman who did the job helping me with the book?”
So how is Ballard like Bosch—and how is she different?
“They are both fierce and relentless, motivated by the baseline unfairness of murder. Unsolved murders get to them in a big way. They don’t forget victims when sometimes the rest of society does. But Bosch is more inside the lines than Ballard. I like to say Bosch walks up to the line, maybe puts his foot across it. Ballard walks right across it, the greater good being more important than the rules.”
I first met Michael Connelly back in the ’90s and—as a longtime journalist myself—was intrigued to find out that he had been the crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times just before the O. J. Simpson case broke. I said it had sure been bad timing for him to leave journalism at that moment and miss out on such a sensational story. But he told me then—and repeated again in this interview—that it was a decision he never regretted.
“I was reaching a point where I felt I was going to have to choose between being a journalist and a novelist. I wanted to do one to the best of my abilities and thought each profession took something away from the other. So I took a six-month sabbatical from the LA Times to see how I would do if my fiction had my undistracted attention. During those six months I learned that this is what I had to do, give up my job as a journalist. So at the end of the sabbatical I went back to work as promised but after three months I knew I had to stop the charade.
“I gave notice, trained a new guy on the beat and retired to write books. After I left the paper, I was in my writing room working on a novel one day when my wife came in and said, ‘You have to see what’s on TV.’ It was O. J. Simpson in the white Bronco leading police and media and basically the whole country on this slow-motion chase to his home where he gave himself up to face murder charges. It was a media firestorm with dozens of reporters clotted around the gate to Simpson’s estate.
“I was watching on TV and when they showed that crowd, I saw the guy who took my place on the crime beat and I knew I could either be in the middle of that clusterf***—as we reporters would call it—or be at home being a full-time novelist. In that moment I knew I had made the right decision.”
But he still looks back on his career as a journalist fondly and feels it was essential in turning him into the writer he is today. “We would not be talking if I hadn’t had the foundation of being a reporter. I like to think my books have a strong base of reality on every level from place to procedure and most of that comes from being a reporter at heart.”
Does Connelly have a favorite book of all the ones he’s written? I told him mine was The Last Coyote, although there so many other great choices too. He said he couldn’t pick out one favorite—but he did have a special affinity for The Last Coyote, in which Harry Bosch investigates the long-ago murder of his own mother.
“The Last Coyote was very special because it was produced when I had a full-time focus on my writing and I thought it was a big advance in quality over the previous books. It was the book where my confidence in what I could do started to rise and I knew I could make a career of this. It also was Harry Bosch’s most personal story, so that meant a great deal to me as well.”
Connelly is also very involved in the TV series Bosch, which runs on Amazon Prime—and has managed to keep it basically true to the character in his books.
“I have had a great ride with the TV show,” he says. “We are into our sixth season and I never thought it would go this far. But we brought together a fantastic team on both sides of the cameras and it has worked. I have really enjoyed adapting books sometimes as old as two decades and telling the Harry Bosch story again but in a different way.
“I also think that the writing of the show has impacted my writing of the books in a positive way. My recent novels are more open, with the storytelling spread from a single Bosch narration to other characters like Ballard. I think that is because on the show we need to widen the storytelling to other characters. It’s been fun.”
In addition, there’s another project called the Murder Book podcast that he puts out online.
“In this day of fake news and enemy of the people, I was spurred by dormant journalism genes to tell a true story. So Murder Book was born. I also knew it was a way to give voice to detectives that have helped me so much with my books. It was also a way to show how I research my books. If you listen to the first season regarding the Pierre Romain case and then read THE NIGHT FIRE, you will see a direct overlapping of themes and investigative moves between the two cases.”
Although there’s a teaser for a new case at the end of THE NIGHT FIRE, Connelly says his next book won’t feature Bosch and Ballard. “I am going to give them a break in the next book and go back to writing about Jack McEvoy, the journalist I last wrote about in The Scarecrow.”
Will there ever be a time that Harry Bosch grows so old that Connelly will be tempted to kill him off?
“I never say never but that has never been my intention in showing this guy’s evolution,” he said. “I don’t think I need to kill him off to end the arc or character. My hope is that even if I stop writing about him the reader will know he is somewhere out there in this fictional world. That way he can show up from time to time when least expected.”
Visit his website at: www.rgbelsky.com