I’m proud to say I’ve been reading Michael Connelly since the beginning. I still remember devouring the early review copies (Black Echo, Black Ice, Concrete Blonde) that we received at B. Dalton—and spreading word of mouth as loudly as I could. Even met the man a few times, back when he drew paltry crowds. It’s a lot like the pride you feel when you get in on the ground floor with a great band. At first, you feel almost a sense of ownership, like they’re yours alone, and you tell all your friends, and then inevitably the band’s following grows, and they become hugely popular, and their work grows in stature, and they’re not yours anymore. They belong to the world.
Michael Connelly belongs to crime literature now. And, lucky for us, he’s still churning out a book or two a year. His latest is called Desert Star, and it combines two of his most popular characters, Hieronymus (“Harry”) Bosch and Renée Ballard. Harry Bosch has been Connelly’s most enduring character—jazz enthusiast, no-nonsense police-detective-turned-private-investigator-turned-retired-police-consultant. This is the twenty-fourth novel featuring Bosch as a lead character. (He was further immortalized for six seasons in the Amazon TV series Bosch, portrayed by Titus Welliver.) For her part, Renée Ballard—introduced as a young detective in Connelly’s The Late Show five years ago—has, over the course of four of her own novels, become disenchanted with active law enforcement and is now inhabiting a “lone wolf” mode that’s similar to that of Bosch. Which means the two characters make for an excellent team in Desert Star, one late in his career and the other still early.
At the beginning of the book, Ballard appears on Bosch’s doorstep asking him to join her as part of the resurrected Open-Unsolved unit of the LAPD—which appeals to Bosch, who has several unsolved cases from his past that have always haunted him. He agrees to do so as a civilian volunteer. Immediately, he’s eager to give fresh eyes to the case of the Gallagher family of four, murdered and buried in the desert years before. The relatively recent specter of DNA technology has made the solving of many of these cases more viable. But just as he dives into the case files, Ballard pulls him over to another case—this one involving the rape and murder of Sarah Pearlman, a young woman who happens to have been the sister of the councilman responsible for the revival of the Open-Unsolved unit itself. So, political motivations play a key role in the direction of the narrative, at least until reliably-lone-wolf Bosch can’t take it anymore. At this point, Desert Star moves forward into a two-act narrative focusing on first one crime and then the other.
One of the aspects of Desert Star that I particularly enjoyed was the back-and-forth dual points of view. Bosch and Ballard have similar voices but key differences of opinion within the unit, making for parallel narratives that work against each other beautifully—both when the characters are in sync and when they’re at odds. You get both that delicious sense of camaraderie among like-minded seekers of justice and that tension that can arise between strong-willed, passionate people who sometimes must compromise to get the job done. Desert Star presents Ballard as the necessarily by-the-book head of the unit, whereas Bosch is in his favorite role as rogue freelancer. As Bosch finds himself torn between the two cases that become the focus of the novel, that tension becomes palpable—particularly as Ballard’s case focusing on Pearlman becomes a hunt for a possible serial killer.
What makes Desert Star extra satisfying, however—at least, at first glance—is that even after the serial killer plot is resolved, the narrative shifts back to the Gallagher case. So, in essence, just as you get two investigative minds as main characters in Bosch and Ballard, you get two compelling cases for the price of one, in Pearlman and Gallagher! And it’s not only narrative that shifts, it’s the location as well, as Bosch takes off for Florida in search of his primary lead. These sections, in which Bosch gets down-and-dirty doing what he does best (sleuthing), are very readable in Connelly’s typical straightforward prose. There’s always been a journalistic matter-of-factness to Connelly’s procedurals, and that style holds true in Desert Star. Sometimes the writing is just short of flat, and yet in a strangely magical way, that style works wonders in service of a police procedural, coming across as dry as a police report but exuding authenticity.
All this being said, the resolution of the Pearlman case does come across as farfetched, but only in that sense that many classic mysteries have—that is, the compulsion to make a certain minor character the culprit, no matter how unlikely or outlandish that development might be. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say, there’s always a little element of Scooby Doo involved in those kinds of unveilings. And, upon reflection at book’s end, I felt that the dual focus on back-to-back cases was the slightest bit unsatisfying, coming across as rather hurried in each case. Perhaps two separate books might have been a better choice for these tales? As is, the cases seem to take up too much narrative space, at the expense of pacing and even character work (even though we know these characters very well by now). Bosch is nearing the end of his career, after all, and I would’ve liked more characterization toward that end.
I’ll take a star off the usual Michael Connelly rating for these reasons, but Desert Star remains a pretty effective procedural with which to spend a few drowsy afternoons.