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'Nine Dragons' by Michael Connelly

Crime, Law and JusticeCrimeHomicideLos Angeles Police DepartmentChinaMichael ConnellyFBI

If you're planning on buying "Nine Dragons," Michael Connelly's latest Harry Bosch novel, be careful where you read it.

Deeply engrossed in an advance copy on a recent flight, jotting notes in the margins as I do when reviewing, I inadvertently exposed the cover to the passenger next to me and to a female flight attendant, prompting the man to pull out his smart phone to show me the Connelly books he'd read and the flight attendant to say, "If you want to leave that behind, I will take very good care of it."

Although they were both very pleasant, the look in their eyes made me closely guard the book for the rest of the flight.

The world Connelly has created engages readers so passionately for a simple reason. Over 21 novels, he has immersed them in the evolution of the modern LAPD, with heart-pounding detours into the worlds of the FBI and journalism in Denver and Los Angeles; criminals in Las Vegas; and the hard-driving L.A. defense attorney Mickey Haller.

Connelly's principal guide and guru, however, has been Harry Bosch, an LAPD homicide detective who made his first appearance in "Black Echo" as a Vietnam veteran loner with a mission to bring justice to victims who can't speak for themselves. Like many readers' lives, Bosch's journey has had many professional and personal turns -- a few relationships, including a brief marriage to FBI agent Eleanor Wish that produced a child Bosch only learned of years later and with whom readers have witnessed the detective develop a deepening though physically distant bond.

Bosch's professional life has been tumultuous too: He left the department for a while to try private investigation but eventually returned to the LAPD and worked his way back to the Robbery-Homicide Division, a centralized squad of elite detectives assigned to the city's more complex crimes. Through it all, Bosch has clung to his professional mission as both shield and mantra, one that has had deeper resonance and ramifications as the years and books have gone by.

"Nine Dragons" ignites Bosch's personal and professional lives, bringing them together in an explosive manner. The novel starts with a call to investigate the murder of John Li, the owner of Fortune Liquors in south Los Angeles. Bosch had encountered the store years before in a tumultuous incident depicted in "Angels Flight." He still carried the matchbook Mr. Li had given him, with the fortune "Happy is the man who finds refuge in himself" printed inside.

The store's surveillance tapes, along with interviews with Li's son, lead Bosch and his younger partner, Iggy Ferras, to conclude that the probable shooter was shaking down the store for protection money and that the man, eventually identified as Bo-Jing Chang, is part of a triad, an organized crime group with roots in China that is a special focus of the LAPD's Asian gangs unit.

China has a deeper personal connection for Harry, since Eleanor and Maddie (Harry's almost-teenage daughter) live in Hong Kong, where Eleanor earns a handsome living as a paid gambler for one of the casinos in Macau. While Harry sees Maddie whenever he can in Hong Kong or when she visits L.A., their relationship is maintained electronically via phone calls, text messages and videos transmitted over twin smart phones. It is that virtual connection that spurs Harry to send his daughter autopsy photos of the victim's cancerous lungs as a parental warning about smoking or, when a detective is unable to translate the tattoos found on victim Li's ankles, send a photo of them to Mandarin-speaking Maddie in the hopes that she can decipher them.

The Li murder abounds in puzzles -- his tattoos, the fact that he had a gun under the counter but didn't use it and that he tried to swallow a shell casing in his dying moments. These mysteries and delays frustrate Bosch, who knows "a case had to move like a shark. It could never stop its momentum because that could be fatal."

Those feelings are short-lived, however, for Bosch soon receives a threatening phone call from what sounds like a Chinese caller, warning him off the case and prompting suspicion that there is a leak inside the department. But when Bosch arrests the suspect Chang en route to LAX on Friday, he receives a video message on his phone that changes everything -- Maddie has been kidnapped, and Bosch believes it was done by the same Hong-Kong-based triad that had warned him off the case.

Harry's feverish race against the clock and the international date line -- flying to Hong Kong to join forces with Maddie's mother in a 24-hour quest to confront the triad holding the girl and return with enough evidence to arraign Chang before he must be released Monday morning -- plunges the reader into a firestorm of danger and tragedy in a city as foreign to Harry as the stories behind the founding of Kowloon, where key scenes take place, or his observance of the Festival of Hungry Ghosts, during which residents burn sacrifices to ancestors all over Hong Kong.

To say that "Nine Dragons" is coiled tight with suspense understates Connelly's accomplishment in portraying Bosch at the cusp of a new world, where the refuge foretold in that matchbook fortune has such portentous resonance and implications. And though Connelly remains a master at detailing the intricacies of "the job," it is Harry's longing for reunion and connection with his ex-wife and daughter, the overwhelming vulnerability he feels as a father, that makes "Nine Dragons" another standout in the series that should satisfy all readers, whether they are new to Boschworld, occasional visitors or devoted denizens.

Woods is a critic and the author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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