Connelly's devils in L.A.'s details

Michael Connelly is looking to stage a kidnapping. The writer wheels his rented SUV through the streets of Hancock Park. He turns right at 5th Street and Windsor Boulevard, and a two-story villa set back from the street catches his eye.

The trash cans are out. A woman in a bathrobe, standing on the front porch, turns to stare.

He pulls out his iPhone and takes a picture. He lifts his foot off the brake and idles ahead. He's pleased with what he found: a waist-high bush on the corner, the Hollywood sign in the distance, palm trees angling overhead, a little crack in the sidewalk edging toward the lawn.

He likes Hancock Park. "The islands of wealth in Los Angeles are often protected by mountains and by the sea," he says. "There is no protection in Hancock Park."

For nearly 20 years, Connelly has prowled the streets of L.A., quick to expose their contradictions and cruelties. At age 53, he's written a shelf full of books, and he's here today to research the latest, due out in October. He's 342 pages into it.

He came to L.A. for a mystery writers' convention and added a day for himself. The agenda: Find a house for a kidnapping and an alley for a body drop, tour Mulholland Drive, check out a sinkhole and poke around Franklin Canyon for a spot where … well, he's not entirely certain how the book will end.

He pulls onto Wilshire Boulevard, westbound. The welter of L.A.'s Mid-City streetscape slips by: billboards, super graphics, office buildings, a few bungalows, power lines and traffic signals, corporate logos and mom-and-pop signage.

Since 2001, he has lived in Tampa, Fla., and writing about a city 2,000 miles away forces him to be diligent about details that a local might skip over.

"Connelly is a skilled urban geographer. Like Raymond Chandler, he gives us Los Angeles in a prosaic, very realistic manner," says Kevin Starr, professor of history at USC. "A lot of Southern California mystery writers give us an overwrought, symbolic landscape from the beginning, but in Connelly, the ominous and dangerous creep up upon you out of the ordinary."

Details matter to Connelly, and although he is a fiction writer, he isn't about to make everything up. He'll joke and say it's his lack of imagination. Truth is: He enjoys collecting even the smallest elements. They help him connect to the story once he has returned home, and he uses them to build atmosphere.

A crack in the sidewalk, "like a scar on the face," is suggestive of past violence; a street called Windsor, just like the castle, is nicely ironic for a kidnapping.

Just before the El Rey Theatre, he heads up Dunsmuir Avenue, puzzled that there's no alley, just a large parking lot for the His and Hers Hair Goods Co. He circles the block and parks on Burnside Avenue. He can't find coins for the meter. He'll risk it. He shuffles across the street, blue shirt untucked, dark glasses on, carrying himself with a bit of a slouch.

From the day he arrived in the late 1980s in the city of his literary hero, Raymond Chandler, Los Angeles has provided him with plenty of leads. A crime reporter for The Times in the Valley, he filed away material from his beat and, after publishing three novels, left the paper in 1993, eventually moving east.

He now lives in a quiet Tampa suburb called Davis Islands, and his office looks out on a bay with a dock and a 23-foot Boston Whaler that he'll tell you gets too little use. When he writes, he pulls down the black-out curtains, and nothing gets in his way — except his own sense of what works and what doesn't.

Last spring, after the tour for "The Scarecrow" and before the publication of "Nine Dragons," he was trying to get up to speed on a book whose central crime borrowed from the Bernard Madoff scandal, but after 140 pages, neither he nor his lead investigator, protagonist LAPD Det. Hieronymus Bosch, could get any traction.

Then one morning during a rundown of the usual websites — LATimes, LAObserved, LAPD, DeadlineHollywood, LAdowntownnews and losanjealous — he read a headline that stopped him. "Child abduction survivor lives with fear and guilt," it read. "When she was 8, Opal Horton escaped from a kidnapper. Her friend wasn't so lucky. Now 32, she testifies at a man's sentencing in the slaying of another girl."

Connelly felt a shiver of recognition. He put aside the Madoff story and, following his gut, began to write the kidnapping scene, making a few changes from the news account in order to turn up the emotions.

Friends became sisters. It was a game of hide-and-go-seek. "One, two, three...." A tow truck passes by. "Four, five, six...." Sarah Ann hid, then there was silence, a stranger's words, a struggle. In an instant Melissa Landy was gone, and Sarah Ann saw it all through the bushes.

Writing for Connelly often combines a flash of inspiration with a slower, more patient orchestration of scene and character. Once a draft is well underway, he begins researching and editing, cutting away anything that diminishes or obscures the tension and layering in newfound elements.

Now if he could just find an alley for the El Rey. He follows a beat-up driveway sandwiched between the parking lot and an apartment building. Fifty yards in, it right-angles to the stage door. It will do. He takes a shot with the iPhone.

Back in the car, no ticket on the windshield, he drives up Fairfax Avenue, past Canter's, Sunset and Hollywood boulevards. The road steepens and narrows into hillsides where homes perch over the city like cantilevered aeries. He threads the SUV between parked cars and turns onto Fareholm Drive, where he and his wife once lived.

The new novel is called "The Reversal." Half police procedural, half courtroom drama, it features Bosch, attorney Mickey Haller and Jason Jessup, a tow truck driver who has spent 24 years in prison for the kidnapping and murder of Melissa Landy. DNA evidence, however, put the conviction into question, and he's out on bail awaiting a new trial.

Connelly created the plot not just from the Chicago kidnapping story but from the case of Bruce Lisker, the Sherman Oaks man who as a teenager was convicted of murdering his mother and in 1986 was sentenced to 16 years to life before being released in September (thanks partly to an investigation by The Times).

Connelly's especially intrigued by the intersection of past and present — it's one reason he assigned Bosch to cold cases — and in a city with 6,000 unsolved homicides, his detective will never want for work.

He slows at a bend in the road. From the street level, his old house is nothing fancy, just an excuse for a deck with views toward Century City and, on clear days, the Pacific. He and his wife sold the place when their daughter was born. He's now set up Haller here.

When he visits, he stays at a hotel in Santa Monica and doesn't bother to reset his watch. It's a habit that keeps him in synch with his family and gets him up early to write or out on the boardwalk for a stroll. Dawn coming over the city reminds him of working the late shift at The Times when he would drive home, indulging the illusion that he knew something about L.A. that no one had quite yet realized.

He turns onto Laurel Canyon Boulevard and winds his way to Skyline Drive and Mulholland Drive. At the crest of the hill, he comes upon detour signs for the 10-foot deep sinkhole that opened up at Deadman's Curve in February. Bosch — who lives in the neighborhood — isn't going to like this, he says.

Connelly found Bosch's home in 1989. There had been an ambush killing just off Mulholland on Woodrow Wilson Drive, and after visiting the crime scene, he drove around the block and discovered some pylons and I-beams of a burned-down house that had jutted over the canyon.

In his imagination, he rebuilt it for his detective. The views of the Valley, "creased by the freeway," were just what Bosch needed. Twenty years later, the pylons are still standing.

His requirements for Franklin Canyon are minimal: a tree and a rock. He parks above the upper reservoir and walks across the gravel lot to a trail head. Halfway up the Chaparral Trail, he comes to a small promontory with a modest overlook that can be seen from a distance, and on the other side, hidden from view, there's a hollow shaded by oaks, a nice place to bury a body — if that's how the novel plays out.

If Connelly is troubled by the lack of an ending, he doesn't show it. "You are expected in a crime novel to make it all fit together at the end," he says. "But reality is all about loose ends, and I do my best to subvert the need to solve everything."

Four weeks later, with a draft of "The Reversal" completed, Connelly is back in town to attend a memorial. He uses the occasion to meet with Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Judith Champagne. They go back several books. As she oversees the morning procession of attorneys and their clients, he sits in the audience taking notes.

The cases don't interest him so much as the trappings of the court: the defendant in the pressed T-shirt, the space heater under the court reporter's desk, the rolling file bin next to the prosecutor's chair, stuffed animals and a bowl of candy on a clerk's desk.

At noon, he and Champagne go out to lunch in Union Station. To the right of his burger is a pad of paper with a few words — "decorum," "contempt in open court," "mistrial" — scribbled on it. They start talking, and an hour later, he's crossed off each.

By 2, he's back at the courthouse. They say goodbye, and he turns down Spring Street, disappearing into the traffic. He has changes to make before delivering "The Reversal."

thomas.curwen@latimes.com

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