Twenty-two years ago, Michael Connelly introduced the world to Harry Bosch, a determined cop with a haunted past and a heart of gold. Bosch was an old soul at the start of “Black Echo,” a homicide detective in his early 40s with an infamous, colorful career and two tours in Vietnam to boot. In “The Burning Room,” Bosch is in his mid-60s, reluctantly nearing the end of his career after 18 novels’ worth of action and mystery. He’s the oldest detective in the Open-Unsolved Unit, entering his final year on his Deferred Retirement Option Plan. “To him, every day he had left on the job was golden.”
As part of a new departmental initiative, Bosch is paired with the youngest officer in his unit, a 28-year-old “slick sleeve” and rising star named Lucia Soto. The two form an amiable, productive partnership — not only is Soto smart, she’s as hardworking and dogged as Bosch, driven in part by a formative tragedy in her childhood.
The novel centers on two cold cases with real reverberations in the present day. The first involves the recent death of paraplegic ex-mariachi Orlando Merced, caused by blood poisoning from the bullet lodged in his spinal column when he was shot in Mariachi Plaza 10 years earlier. The shooter was never found and the prevailing theory was that Merced was the victim of a stray bullet in a gang-related confrontation. Merced became a political symbol, trotted out regularly in a replica of his bloody shirt to add fuel to a mayoral campaign focused on the neglected communities of East Los Angeles.
As a result, Bosch and Soto’s new case is high profile, high priority and politically sensitive. Merced’s death opens fresh avenues of inquiry, his corpse offering up the only good clue to be had in years — the bullet comes from a rifle, throwing doubt on the theory of random violence.
While the Merced case cooks on one burner, Bosch discovers Soto investing precious time in another cold case, an apartment fire on Bonnie Brae that killed nine people, a woman and eight children in an unlicensed day care — an unsolved arson and multiple homicide. When Bosch learns that Soto was one of the children who survived, he finds a way for them to work both cases together. This plot bifurcation spreads out the book’s momentum but not to ill effect. The device works thematically, both cases centering on crimes that claimed poor Latino victims, crimes that were never cleared.
As always, Connelly pulls off a fast-paced, well-drawn police procedural, and it’s a pleasure to watch Bosch and Soto track down guns and interview witnesses, their footwork minutely documented and easy and fun to follow. There is at least one ridiculous leap — Bosch makes the major break in one case by flipping a newspaper clipping and reading the story on the back — but for the most part, the developments are satisfying and earned. Connelly has favorite tropes that make some revelations predictable (“the dark waters where politics and murder swirl”), but the book is consistently entertaining.
“The Burning Room” also delivers the vivid sense of setting that Connelly fans have come to expect over the years. Bosch and Soto sprawl all over Los Angeles, spilling into Hemet and Adelanto. They drive to Calexico, even travel as far as the Little Mexico neighborhood in Tulsa, Okla. Connelly has had plenty of practice describing contemporary Los Angeles, and his portrayal of our city is as faithful today as it’s ever been. Mariachi Plaza is especially well rendered, coming to bustling life in both the past and present. (The Libros Schimbros Lending Library gets a shout-out.) Bosch has kept up with the times, perhaps with the help of his teenage daughter — in one scene, he eats a bacon doughnut at Nickel Diner.
But dessert trends aside, Bosch is not entirely happy with all the changes in the world. If he was a bit jaded in the ‘90s, he’s a straight-up curmudgeon now. He narrates: “Keyboards and cell phones were the main tools of the modern investigator. Detectives sat in twelve-hundred dollar chairs and wore sleek designer shoes with tassels. Gone were the days of thick rubber soles and function over form, when a detective’s motto was ‘Get off your ass and go knock on doors.’”
One wonders what this old guard detective would make of recent clashes between police and civilians. Bosch, in his unrelenting pursuit of truth and justice, employs sneaky methods to keep suspects and witnesses a neat distance from their rights and their lawyers. In the current climate of rampant police misconduct, some of these actions stand out as Machiavellian, perhaps unintentionally so.
But Connelly isn’t writing for the hashtag activist crowd, and “The Burning Room” will more than satisfy his fans. The writing is simple and effective, and the story is interesting and original — impressive for the 19th in any series. Bosch may be up for retirement soon, but I doubt anyone would complain if he did his thing for another 20 years.
Cha is the author of “Beware Beware.”
The Burning Room
Little Brown: 400 pp., $28