A homeless man burned to death in his tent lies at the center of Michael Connelly’s fast-paced new novel, “The Night Fire,” the second to feature detective Harry Bosch working in tandem with the LAPD’s Renée Ballard.
As Ballard examines the scene for signs of foul play, fellow-homeless people come out of their tents in the Hollywood encampment to watch “both wide-eyed and addled as the investigation into the death of one of their own proceeded.”
Connelly, a former crime reporter who deploys a journalist’s approach to write fiction that crackles with veracity, said it’s hardly surprising that the growing homeless population in Los Angeles plays a part in his 33rd novel.
The details he has uncovered in his ongoing research into the intersection of police and the homeless also will help inform the sixth season of his Amazon television series “Bosch,” now in production and expected to begin streaming April 20, Connelly said.
“You react to what you see, and there is no doubt that the homeless situation in Los Angeles has really reached a crisis,” said Connelly, who joins the Los Angeles Times Book Club on Oct. 21 to debut his upcoming book.
“I just think it’s a writer’s duty — if I’m going to write about Los Angeles, how could I not reflect on what is a crisis of the moment, and a very visible one at that?”
By her own choice, Bosch’s new partner Ballard herself is virtually homeless, adding another intriguing element as she tracks down the perpetrator of a killing that haunts her as she sleeps in her tent on the beach.
As readers of previous Ballard books will know, the quirky detective prefers to stay close to the water in Venice Beach when she gets off her midnight shift, only occasionally retreating to her grandmother’s house when she requires a more conventional shelter.
As Ballard hunts for clues in the homeless encampment fire, Bosch is poring over a three-inch-thick LAPD murder book, a cold case he inherited upon the death of former mentor John Jack Thompson. His mentor’s widow handed over the file on the day of the funeral. Ballard joins the mission, and the two try to figure out who killed a young man in an alley nearly 30 years earlier, and why Thompson apparently stole the murder book and sat on it.
Connelly is drawn to cold cases and admires the ferocity of detectives who solve them, including the real-life LAPD Det. Mitzi Roberts, a surfer and former bartender on whom Ballard is based.
“It does take a certain kind of detective to do it well — someone who is really deeply rooted in the idea of fairness,” Connelly said. “I see it in Mitzi Roberts and I see it in other detectives that I spend time with. Most of them work cold cases and don’t want to work anything else. They’re pretty fierce about it, and that fierceness is really inspiring to me.”
“The Night Fire” marks the 22nd novel featuring Bosch, but the iconic detective takes a back-seat role while recovering from knee surgery with Ballard taking the lead. The new novel highlights some of the ways the younger Ballard differs from her friend, including her willingness to cross ethical lines in the way she secures a wiretap to trap a suspect.
“People always go, ‘So what’s the difference, besides one being a female and one being a male?’” Connelly said. “To me, Bosch is a guy who goes up to the line and will put one foot over, and Ballard steps completely over.”
If you like your cops with a rogue streak, you can look forward to a lot more Ballard in the future, as things are looking bleak for Bosch. He‘s no longer on the force (though maintains reserve officer status) and is confronting his own mortality head-on as he faces the grim diagnosis of an illness almost certainly acquired on the job.
“I made a choice a long time ago to age Bosch in real time, so his days as a realistic investigator are numbered,” Connelly said. He has no plans to write Bosch completely out of the picture, but the torch is being passed.
While Bosch may be slowing down, Connelly, 63, shows no signs of flagging, with his steady output of books, TV shows and a new podcast, “The Murder Book,” which just ended its 14-episode first season.
Next year will see a new television series based on “The Lincoln Lawyer,” featuring Connelly’s character Mickey Haller, the defense lawyer who is Bosch’s half-brother. Matthew McConaughey played Haller in the movie version. CBS has ordered 13 episodes of the series, which is being developed by showrunner David E. Kelley.
While Connelly is intimately involved in the “Bosch” show as writer and executive producer, he says he has no problem handing over this new series to Kelley, the creative mind behind such shows as “Chicago Hope,” “Ally McBeal” and “Boston Legal.”
“David Kelley is an extremely gifted writer, and well-accomplished in television,” said Connelly, a former Times reporter. “So when someone like David Kelley comes and says, ‘I’d like to take this series to TV,’ I didn’t have to think too long about it.”
Meanwhile, Connelly stays in close contact with a small cadre of LAPD detectives who form the brain trust for his creative output. Whenever he’s stumped about police procedure, he simply enters some XXXs in his manuscript and sends a note to one of his detective friends, asking to meet for breakfast. They know the place.
Book club: If you go
The L.A. Times Book Club welcomes author Michael Connelly in conversation with Times reporter and novelist Jeffrey Fleishman about “The Night Fire.”
When: 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 21
Where: The Montalbán Theater, 1615 Vine St., Los Angeles.