The Overlook by Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly has written another work of pared-down genius. The Overlook covers twelve hours in the life of LAPD detective Harry Bosch, from his taking of the case of a man being found dead on the cliffs overlooking Los Angeles, to his solution of the case. The book is simple, with few if any special effects and a simple, direct writing style, but the overall effect is very powerful.
Harry Bosch is 56 years old: he is a Vietnam veteran (a “tunnel rat”) and a long-standing policeman before taking early retirement in a fit of disillusionment with LAPD politics. A few books ago he was persuaded back to serve, working cold cases. The most recent of these, described in Echo Park, ended in a bit of a mess, as a result of which Harry is transferred back into the main business of police work.
Harry stands for the victim. It is impossible to deflect him by political or emotional means, hence he is the eternal outsider, not promoted, and unsuccessful in his relationships outside work because of his moral rigidity. At the start of The Overlook he is sitting at night in his house, waiting for a call, any call. Eventually it comes, leading him to the clifftop scene where a man has been shot in the head, execution style.
One pleasure of the book is the detail of the police investigation: how Harry picks up on small clues whose significance is unclear but that his experience tells him will be important as more information is gathered. In the current case, it rapidly becomes evident that a terrorist crime may have been committed and some radioactive cesium stolen, enough to cause a major incident in the city. Enter the FBI, including Harry’s old girlfriend and erstwhile partner Agent Rachel Walling. Harry insists on treating the crime as a crime against the man who was killed, but the FBI, Department of Homeland Security (national and LA chapters) and assorted agencies disagree, freeze Harry out, and proceed according to anti-terrorist orders from Washington DC.
Ever since 9/11, Michael Connelly has been showing in his writing how the “pure” agenda of police work, fighting crime on behalf of the victims, has been abused by power-seeking, detached agencies determined to put their preconceived notions before evidence or legal niceties such as civil rights. The Overlook is a strong contribution to this genre. In a Harry Bosch book, the reader is never sure if Harry’s single-mindedness will pay off for him in the end: one can be pretty sure it will pay off for the particular investigation, but not so sure of the consequences for Harry.
The Overlook is full of good writing, using lean rather than over-inflated prose; the detective elements are satisfying; the plot holds up; the contemporary tensions are perfectly realised. There may be a couple of slightly jarring pages (a flashback to Vietnam and a meeting between Harry and the new Chief of Police) but these don’t matter; what matters is that this book is a beautifully paced, sincere, honest and suspenseful account. Would that all cops were like Harry Bosch, with his values, determination and, yes, stubbornness.

First posted at Petrona, January 2008.

This entry was posted in Books, Crime fiction, North America, Police procedural, Series, Social comment, USA and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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