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NPR Arts & Life

Michael Connelly: L.A. Reporter To Mystery Novelist


Writer Michael Connelly hits a milestone this summer. It's been 20 years since he introduced the character that launched his bestselling books - Los Angeles homicide Detective Harry Bosch. In today's encore Crime in the City, we return to the City of Angels.

It was here, back in 2007, NPR's Mandalit Del Barco met up with Michael Connelly. He was living in Florida but still spending time on the mean streets of L.A.


MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Michael Connelly has no need for the GPS device on the SUV he's driving from Venice Beach to downtown. Though he splits his time between L.A. and Tampa, he knows these streets and freeways well. The windshield is his lens on Los Angeles.

MICHAEL CONNELLY: To use a cop term, it's a suitcase city. It's because it's a transient place. People come from all over to be here. And there's an element of agitation. Am I safe? And the car is the safety zone.

BARCO: One of our stops is a restaurant on Franklin Avenue - Bird's, a favorite spot for L.A. cops. Connelly got to know many of them in the 1980s and '90s as a crime reporter for the L.A. Times.

CONNELLY: First day, when I'm meeting my editor, I'm going to be on the police beat and all that stuff, and he says you're now in a city that's a sunny place for shady people, and in that line between the sun and the shade there are good stories. So go out and get them.

BARCO: During his day job, Connelly always took mental notes about the location and characters he would fictionalize. Eighteen novels later, he's still exploring the world of the LAPD.


BARCO: In Hollywood, Connelly joins up with a buddy, Patrol Sergeant Bob McDonald, who appears occasionally in his novels. They take a spin down the famous Sunset Boulevard in a black-and-white squad car. And as they near the 101 Freeway onramp, they're flagged down by a frantic man who's just been mugged.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So I came up, flagged you. Got in front of you. He went down...

BARCO: The victim is an immigrant from Budapest. His face is bloodied. His eyeglasses are busted.

SERGEANT BOB MCDONALD: He took your wallet?


MCDONALD: What was he wearing? Do you remember?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No. He did it so quickly. I don't know.

BARCO: Connelly watches the cops who arrive on the scene to take the man's report and the paramedics who bandage his head.

CONNELLY: You know, the take on this crime is $30. And just think what the impact is on his life, both physically, mentally, and then financially.

BARCO: It's not as grim as the crimes Connelly's main character usually investigates. That would be Detective Hieronymus Bosch - Harry Bosch.

CONNELLY: He's an outsider with an insider's job.

BARCO: Connelly says he based him on Raymond Chandler's character, Phillip Marlowe, a 1940s private eye. Harry Bosch is a relentless modern-day homicide detective with the LAPD.

CONNELLY: You might not like his tactics. You might not even like his personality. There might be a lot you don't like about him. But you would respect how he works to the point that if it was your loved one who was on the slab down at the morgue, then the first name that would come to mind in terms of the investigator would be Harry Bosch.

BARCO: Bosch works in the homicide division at the Hollywood station, which has its own sidewalk stars and movie posters in the lobby. Today, Connelly pays a visit and meets the new captain, Thomas Brascia.

CAPTAIN THOMAS BRASCIA: I know exactly who you are. I think I've read every novel you've written.


BRASCIA: Harry Bosch? I'm reading "The Overlook" right now.

CONNELLY: Well, let me ask you a question. Why do you read that stuff? You do this.

BRASCIA: Oh, because I'm an ex-homicide cop. I'm living vicariously now through Harry Bosch. And that definitely is my passion. That was my love, homicide. You know, being a homicide detective.

BARCO: Captain Brascia says Connelly's descriptions of the vibrant precinct and seedy neighborhoods, the at-times thrilling and tedious police work, are dead-on.

BRASCIA: The descriptions are accurate. You can tell that Michael's been there. He's done his homework.

BARCO: Connelly gets the same reaction at the Criminal Courts Building downtown. A few floors up from where music producer Phil Spector is being tried, Connelly sits in on a random case. The accused wears an orange prison jumpsuit, writing notes to her lawyer. Connelly leans in to whisper the irony.

CONNELLY: The defendant in this case is actually a defense attorney. It's just like happenstance, I'm writing about a defense attorney and here's one being sent to prison.

BARCO: When the judge, Judy Champagne, calls for a break, she asks Connelly to step into her chambers.

JUDGE JUDY CHAMPAGNE: Ah, life as a very successful mystery writer.

BARCO: Connelly hand-delivers a manuscript of his current thriller.

CONNELLY: Once again, I want Judge Champagne to make a cameo.

CHAMPAGNE: Oh, good.


CONNELLY: In the book I'm writing and...

BARCO: He asks her to be brutally honest if he got the legal terms right. And he makes sure he can again base the fictional judge on her. Champagne seems flattered and impressed.

CHAMPAGNE: Michael really, really works hard to get it accurate, which all the judges and the cops and the lawyers who are great fans love about it, because it is real. And the characters, they're flawed. They're just the way we are. I mean, Harry's been my favorite, but he's flawed. And sometimes I think, Harry, don't do that, you know? This is going to get you in trouble.

CONNELLY: Her late husband, who was a friend of mine, a lot of him is in Harry. So I think maybe that's what you connect to.

CHAMPAGNE: Oh, yeah.

CONNELLY: Judge and her husband, when she was a prosecutor, he was the cop and he brought in cases to her to prosecute. So what was the saying - I know I used it in the book.

CHAMPAGNE: I hook them and you cook them or something.

CONNELLY: Yeah. Roy would say, I hook them, she cooks them.

BARCO: The maverick Harry Bosch and his creator both solve cases while on the road listening to jazz. And they're contemplative about the city that inspires them.

CONNELLY: The randomness of this place, the idea that anything can happen, both good and bad, and it can happen pretty quickly. And there's people that become overnight famous in this place - for the good things they've done, maybe the creative things they've done, and oftentimes it's for the horrible things they've done.

BARCO: Listening to Bosch's theme song, Connelly winds along Mulholland Drive and up to where Harry Bosch's house was red-tagged after an earthquake. From this vantage point, high in the Hollywood Hills, Connelly looks out over the canyon to the endless ribbon of red lights on the freeway.

CONNELLY: It's a city that's, you know, beautiful and damaged, that has so much that appears to be going for it, but it falls short in so many ways. And it's just like a person, you know, a flawed character.

BARCO: This is Michael Connelly's Los Angeles - beautiful and damaged, with moments of hidden grace. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Come this Monday, we're off to Oslo with NPR's Eric Westervelt and Nordic noir writer Jo Nesbo. His detective, Harry Hole, tries to solve crime and steer clear of relationships.

JO NESBO: Getting friendly with Harry is like getting bitten by a vampire. It's not going to turn out well.


MONTAGNE: Crime in the City on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.