Monday, October 18, 2010

King of crime offers clues to success: Michael Connelly

King of crime offers clues to success
American author Michael Connelly talks to Craig Sisterson about chronicling contemporary LA

TWO UNPUBLISHED manuscripts that are gathering dust “in a box somewhere” in Michael Connelly’s Tampa home deserve a slice of credit for the creation of one of the most compelling characters in contemporary crime fiction, even if the acclaimed author says his earliest efforts “got the fate they deserved”. For it was in the process of those first attempts at writing full-length fiction that Connelly, then a newspaper reporter, had a revelation. “I learned that, at least for me, the books I write were going to live and die with character,” he says, his measured voice resonating down the line from Florida. “The protagonist was what they were going to be about, not a tricky plot.” Connelly admits those first efforts - private eye tales set in Fort Lauderdale - were “strong on plot, short on character”, so for his third attempt he concentrated more on creating a complex hero, and relentless LAPD Detective Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch was born. Two decades, millions of copies, and shelves full of awards and accolades later, Bosch and Connelly are both back this month with The Reversal, released in New Zealand this week.

The 16th of Connelly’s 22 crime novels to feature Bosch, who earlier this year was voted ‘World’s Favourite Detective’ in an online poll, The Reversal sees the aging cop teamed up with another multilayered Connelly character, defense attorney Mickey Haller, who first appeared in 2005’s The Lincoln Lawyer. This time Haller is recruited to ‘switch sides’ to act as a special prosecutor in the retrial of a man released due to shaky DNA evidence after 24 years in prison for a child murder. Convinced the man is guilty, Haller takes the case on the proviso he can choose his own investigator; Harry Bosch.

Having his defense attorney hero cross the aisle to act as an independent prosecutor may be unusual, but is typical of Connelly’s approach; he’s always looking to evolve and stretch both his writing and his characters, book on book.

“If you’re going to engage readers with a character that comes around [regularly], there’s just no way the character can remain static,” he says. “There has to be change and evolution and self-exploration and understanding.” Woven into gripping storylines, of course.


Everyone is entitled to the most vigorous defence possible
Michael Connelly


Connelly says he first created Haller because he wanted to stretch himself by writing a legal thriller, and he was attracted to the idea of a hero who had a very different view of the justice system from Bosch. While Bosch is a loner who sometimes plays outside the rules, so considers himself an outsider within the police department, he isn’t a true outsider like Haller, says Connelly. “Bosch carries a badge, carries a gun, he represents the Government, and Mickey Haller is on the opposite side of that. And you know defense attorneys are pretty much despised by society because people don’t take the time, at least in American society, to really think about how one of the foundations of our country is that everyone is entitled to the most vigorous defense possible.”

Haller is also a complicated person in that what he gets out of his career, even when he’s successful, isn’t enough, says Connelly. “He doesn’t feel that successful as a man or a person. He’s trying to figure out why - he’s not someone who says ‘I need this and then I’ll be successful’ - he’s not sure what he needs, and I think that makes him interesting.”

Along with his great touch for characters like Haller and Bosch, Connelly is also renowned for evoking the contemporary ‘character’ of Los Angeles, a city where he worked the crime beat for several years, including during the LA riots. Connelly is a master of the ‘telling detail’, utilising short description or insight to bring things to life, rather than a laundry-list of attributes. “I still treat my research like a reporter,” he says. “I go to the places that I’m going to write about, and stuff kind of sifts through. My years as a reporter gave me pretty good skill at observation, so I look for these things. Rather than 50 details about something that really add up to nothing, I look for the one thing that really opens a window to the character… or place.” While researching The Reversal Connelly drove around Los Angeles taking pictures on his iPhone of locations he could use, that had thematic or symbolic touches as well as working physically. Such as a kidnapping site; a nice house in a nice neighbourhood, with the Hollywood sign visible in the distance, a high hedge to provide concealment, and a crack running up the path. It was this final detail that caught Connelly’s eye. “You know, there is something wrong here, the entrance is cracked.”

The other part of capturing ‘telling details’ is “having a good ear for dialogue, or a good ear for the telling statements someone will make”, says Connelly. The “whole Mickey Haller odyssey” really kick-started when he was regularly having lunches and drinks with lawyers while researching his first legal thriller. Talking about innocent clients, one defense attorney said “You don’t want to have an innocent client, the scariest thing you can have is an innocent client because the stakes are so high”. It was a perspective Connelly had never heard expressed in movies, books or TV shows about lawyers. “So that was the starting point for Mickey Haller, and you know it’s the first line of the first book he’s in. That for me was a telling detail about that life.” The big-screen adaptation of The Lincoln Lawyer recently finished shooting, and is due for release early next year, with Matthew McConaughey playing Haller.

Connelly also regularly weaves wider contemporary issues into his crime novels; the Bosch tales have chronicled a fair chunk of the city’s social history and landscape over the past two decades, from the aftermath of the riots to homeland security issues following 9/11. Addressing such issues “keeps him interested” and adds dimension to his crime novels, admits Connelly. “It makes me feel like I’ve elevated my game if I can reflect a little bit of what’s going on in the world, or in my world. The trick is never to be didactic, don’t tell people what should be done. What I try to do is finesse into my stories a sense of what’s going on out there, and maybe raise some questions in the readers’ minds. You want to have different views, or opposing views, and then the reader can draw their own conclusions.”

The Reversal (Allen & Unwin, $38.99)


This feature interview was first published in the Saturday 9 October issue of the Weekend Herald, and is reprinted here with kind permission.


  1. Great article, Craig. Thanks for reproducing it for those of us too close to Antarctica for The Herald to bother selling their newspaper!

  2. Wonderful article! I love Connelly's comments on the telling detail. I look forward to reading The Reversal.
    Pat Browning
    Yukon, Oklahoma USA

  3. Yes, I think the 'telling detail' is a really key writing technique that elevated good/great writing from mediocre writing. Trying to get some meaning/insight into character/places etc by way of pithy vivid description, rather than just listing things...