I've seen him. Really.
I'm not crazy. I'm not a liar. And I swear to you: I've seen Harry Bosch, the hero of Michael Connelly's brilliant, best-selling and melancholy-drenched mystery series.
What's that you say? Bosch is a fictional character?
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Fictional, schmictional. If you've read Connelly's novels — there are 25 in all, with 18 featuring Bosch — then you know what I mean. Bosch is real. He's real in the way that only made-up characters can be real: We know him better than we know flesh-and-blood people, better than we know our friends and loved ones and colleagues, because we get to go inside Bosch's head. We see him on the job. We follow him home. We're granted a lifetime pass for a guided tour of his soul — which, by the way, is not a tidy, pleasant, sunny place. In fact, it's a mess. But more on that later.
So — yes — I've seen Bosch. Not often, but it happens. It's usually when I'm driving at dusk. I stop at a red light. Impatient, I tap erratically on the steering wheel with my thumbs. I hunch my shoulders. I squint at the line of traffic bunched up in front of me. And then my gaze drifts over to the driver of the car next to mine.
My heart gives a funny little lurch.
Because it's him. Even in profile, I know him: tight, clean-shaven jaw; close-cropped hair; solid ridge of high cheekbone. If he happens to turn and look in my direction, I freeze — embarrassed to be caught staring, sure, but there's another reason, too. I freeze because I know what he's been through. I've read Connelly's novels, so I know the things that Bosch knows. And seeing me, he knows that I know. The stark intimacy of the moment may be awkward for me, but it's excruciating for Bosch.
In the world of crime fiction authors, a world so hot and crowded that it can sometimes feel like a small elevator stuck between floors, there is only one Michael Connelly and only one Harry Bosch. The books are deceptively simple. The sentences are generally short and straightforward. The plots are satisfyingly layered but never flamboyantly clever. There's no "Eureka!" moment, no flourish of trumpets. Bosch doesn't wisecrack his way through his cases, doesn't toss out snarky, cynical, world-weary pronouncements like cigarette butts from the driver's-side window of a speeding Crown Vic. He's not cartoonishly suave, like James Bond, and he's not cartoonishly bumbling, like Columbo. He's Harry Bosch.
Bosch is a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. Beginning with "The Black Echo" (1992) and twisting through 20 years of adventures that conclude — for now — with "The Black Box," scheduled for publication Nov. 26, Bosch has been shot at, tripped up, knocked down, suspended from his job, upended by an earthquake, double-crossed and psychoanalyzed. He's fallen in love, fathered a child, listened to too much jazz, worked his way through too many late nights and rooted out the painful secrets of his own lousy childhood. He drinks too much. He thinks too much.
Harry is a nickname; his real name is Hieronymus Bosch, just like the 15th century Dutch artist. It was his mother's idea. "My name was just something she came up with," he tells a shrink in "The Last Coyote" (1995). "The painter, you know. She thought L.A. was a lot like his paintings. All the paranoia, all the fear."
Connelly was a police reporter for the Los Angeles Times before he began writing crime novels, and it shows; a painstaking, ground-level knowledge of police work has soaked into his work, staining it with authenticity. Connelly's greatest asset is his ability to depict the tedium implicit in most law enforcement work — following up leads that often lead nowhere, running down suspects whose marginal lives make them frustratingly elusive — in an honest, methodical way, without the stories themselves becoming tedious or boring. In most instances, solving a crime is like growing a coral reef: A case emerges slowly, bit by bit, small fact by small fact. You can't rush it. There are no shortcuts. "Fresh kills or cold cases, the pursuit of killers had to be relentless," goes a sentence in "The Black Box," in which Bosch tackles a case still unsolved after two decades. "It was the only way to go and the only way Bosch knew how to go."
Readers know a lot more about Bosch than just his work habits. He served in the Vietnam War. He used to have tattoos on his knuckles that read, "Hold Fast," but he got rid of them — the old-fashioned way, by scraping and cutting — when he joined the Army. He was 40 years old in 1992, which means he is 60 now. Connelly has taken pains to have Bosch age in real time.
Bosch knows the job has worked him over, roughed up his view of the world; he refuses to sugarcoat it. When he's having dinner with a new lover in "City of Bones" (2002) and she proposes a toast — "To life" — Bosch corrects her: "Yeah. Getting through another day." It's early in their romance, but still: She deserves to know what she's getting herself into. "You wade through the cesspool every day and soon it seems that's all there is. An abyss," Bosch thinks to himself, before they've finished that first glass of wine.
Admittedly, a middle-aged male detective with a grim childhood and relationship issues, a guy who loves the slow burn of jazz and the fast burn of alcohol, is a bit of a cliche these days. From Henning Mankell's Wallender to Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole to Michael Harvey's Michael Kelly, the species is familiar. But you have to look past the superficial to find out what makes each of these fellows tick; it's something different for each one. And when it comes to Bosch, the thing that pushes him is his mission. As he puts it, "Everybody counts or nobody counts." Be the victim in question "a prostitute or the mayor's wife," Bosch says, he does his job with the same single-minded fervor, the same drive, the same screw-the-rules rowdiness.
It doesn't make for an easy life. "He reminded himself more of the dead than of the living," the narrator says of Bosch in "City of Bones." The detective often peers in the mirror and sees what the job has made of him: He's a hard man, perpetually sad, permanently disillusioned — but he's a satisfied man, too, on some days, when the bad guy's cornered and justice gets done.
Don't be surprised if you, too, see him one day. You'll be looking around, taking in the scenery, and suddenly — there he is: Harry Bosch. Taking a break from a crime scene, maybe. You'll note the eyes, the fathoms-deep stare. You'll take in the cheap suit, the scuffed shoes. Like the very best of fictional characters, Bosch will seem slightly more real to you than anybody else you know. Because, thanks to Connelly's night-washed, heart-creasing tales, you know Bosch's soul. You've walked around inside it. Seen the pictures in there. Felt the chill.
And Bosch has a warning for you: Get out while you still can.
Julia Keller, author of the 2012 crime novel "A Killing in the Hills," teaches at Ohio University.
The book on Bosch
"The Black Box" is the 18th novel by Michael Connelly featuring Harry Bosch, the brooding, jazz- and blues-loving detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. It's one of the very best. Bosch returns to a murder case he wasn't able to solve in 1992 — the death of a Dutch photojournalist during the city's deadly riots — in search of something he might have missed back then: "He believed that every case had a black box. A piece of evidence, a person, a positioning of facts that brought a certain understanding and helped explain what had happened and why."
Connelly also has created two other series: One features a lawyer named Mickey Haller, the other an FBI agent named Rachel Walling. Bosch occasionally shows up in the Haller and Walling books. But for my money, the stand-alone Bosch books are best.
Along with "The Black Box," my favorite Bosch books are:
→ "The Last Coyote" (1995): Bosch avenges the murder of his prostitute mom.
→ "Lost Light" (2003): In the first novel in the series narrated in the first person, Bosch heads to Hollywood to solve the murder of a film production assistant..
→ "The Closers" (2005): Bosch teams up with a former partner on a baffling case.
Julia Keller will moderate a discussion with Michael Connelly at 7 p.m. Nov. 28, in Tribune Tower, 435 N. Michigan Ave. The event will be preceded by a members-only reception at 6:30 p.m. For tickets, visit chicagotribune.com/printersrow.