At the L.A. Times Festival of Books in April, Michael Connelly said of his iconic LAPD homicide detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, “I didn’t freeze Harry in time, because it’s better storytelling not to. As long as he can keep his health and his knees are good, he can close cases.” Nonetheless, at 67, Bosch presents readers of the redoubtable series with a different kind of ticking clock. One day Harry’s knees — or his heart — will give out, a looming loss for those who identify with Bosch’s dogged determination in the face of adversity and his crime-fighting creed, “Everybody counts or nobody counts.” Given our morally fraught times, strong ethics are even more longed for, which may color readers’ expectations of Det. Renée Ballard, the 32 year-old protagonist in “The Late Show,” Connelly’s 30th novel.
He’s not breaking new ground in writing a Los Angeles-based police procedural from a female point of view, and Connelly himself has included several female homicide detectives in Bosch’s world (Lt. Grace Billets, Det. Kizmin Rider). But Connelly’s long-ago flirtation with writing from the female point of view in “Void Moon” was not entirely successful, not because men can’t write women but, in part, because that character, Cassie Black, did not have the moral core of Connelly’s other signature protagonists.
Connelly excels at writing principled outsiders, and Renée Ballard hews to this archetype. Bounced from the LAPD’s prestigious Robbery-Homicide Division because of her accusations of sexual abuse against her supervisor, Lt. Robert Olivas, Ballard winds up working the graveyard shift in “the Six,” taking initial reports on all manner of Hollywood Division crime that are later assigned to day-shift detectives for follow-up and resolution. Working the “late show” is as low as a detective can go while still holding the title, Ballard banished to Hollywood for daring to challenge male privilege within the department. Although Ballard has been ousted from the big boys club, her passion and commitment to the job are undiminished, even on the extraordinarily busy night that opens the novel with a bang.
First up is the victim of credit card fraud, a crime that spurs Ballard to play hardball with the card company’s Indian customer service center to provide her with information on where the ill-gotten merchandise was sent. Next is the case of a brutally beaten transgendered woman, Ramona Ramone. Her colleagues call Ramona a “dragon” and compare the length of her prior arrests to her pre-op genitalia. Ballard treats the victim, even while she’s unconscious, with dignity and later argues with her partner, senior lead Det. John Jenkins: “This is big evil out there and I want to keep the case and do something for a change.” But a third case, a horrific shooting at the Dancers, a Sunset Boulevard nightclub, keeps Ballard at the hospital to interview an incoming victim. Arriving at the Hollywood nightclub after the victim expires puts her squarely in the crosshairs of Lt. Olivas, who’s in charge of the complex investigation.
Connelly excels at writing principled outsiders, and Renée Ballard hews to this archetype.
With the Robbery-Homicide Division called onto the case because of its high-profile nature, Hollywood detectives are shoved to the margins. But Ballard doesn’t whine or complain about her role, seeing tasks as tangential to the case as doing a next-of-kin notification as “a sacred responsibility of a homicide detective.” The case also is a reunion of sorts with Kenny Chastain, Ballard’s former partner in RHD, who threw her under the bus by refusing to back her claim against Olivas. Det. Chastain is working the case under Olivas and is forced to interact with Ballard to collect evidence in her possession, and he receives a serious tongue-lashing about his complicity in her ouster. Longtime fans of the Harry Bosch series may do a double-take at the name, but one of the subtle joys of “The Late Show” is how connections in the LAPD family run deep, even as the focus shifts to new characters and situations.
Launching a new series and protagonist is hard work, and with so many characters, settings and departmental undercurrents to navigate, “The Late Show’s” seams show at times. The resolution of the Ramona Ramone case leaves lingering questions some readers may not be accustomed to experiencing. More significantly, the denouement of the Dancers murders, while cleverly executed, opens some huge gaps in understanding the shooter’s motives that one hopes get resolved in future novels.
While haters may dismiss her as Harry Bosch with ovaries, Renée Ballard is a computer savvy, hapa — half Hawaiian, half white — who paddleboards, sleeps some nights on the beach with her boxer-mix rescue, has more than one sexual partner and some intriguing darkness in her soul. As she juggles involvement in the three increasingly complex cases, working some officially and others against the direct orders of Olivas and her lieutenant, there are enough reversals, surprises and action to keep fans of the Bosch series happily turning pages long into the night. Equally important, what emerges in “The Late Show” is a character whose sense of justice, fairness and determination reflect Connelly’s strengths as a storyteller as much as they do his better-known detective. Connelly possesses an unparalleled knowledge of LAPD procedure and culture, something less experienced or less dedicated writers disdain for the sake of story. But the essence of the modern police procedural is to blend the crime, forensics, cop culture and the protagonist’s personal story into something akin to magic and Connelly still has the formula down pat.
Welcome Renée Ballard to the City of Angels’ crime fighting pantheon. Barring an 8.0 direct hit on the Hollywood station, we will be seeing a lot more of her.
Woods is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, an editor and author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series.
Little, Brown and Co.: 448 pp., $28