Another week, another look at a book which put me on the path to the classic detection obsession which occupies my every waking moment.
No surprise, it’s…
Blood Work (1998) by Michael Connelly
How I encountered this book
Having stumbled across the work of Michael Crichton and Philip Kerr as related in the last couple of weeks, I’d read a broad range of thrillers from my school library — from the Jason Bourne novels of Robert Ludlum to Latitude Zero (1998) by Windsor Chorlton (there’s a reason you haven’t heard of that one…) and everything in between. Ever on the lookout for contemporary authors, I was taken by a boxset for sale in the catalogue of the remainders company The Book People offering ten novels by “current masters of the crime-thriller genre”…all, not coincidentally I’m sure, published by the UK house Orion (my memory’s hazy, but I think this was early 2000). Not only did this get me reading Robert Crais and start a love affair with Orion’s crime output (and I’ve already talked about how influential that turned out to be), it included the authors I’ll be talking about this week and next: first up, Michael Connelly, with Blood Work (1998) being one of the titles included in that very boxset.
What’s it about?
Terrell ‘Terry’ McCaleb was an FBI profiler working cases involving serial killers when, due to a rare blood condition, a heart attack cut his career short in his late-40s. Eight weeks post-transplant, he’s approached on the boat where he lives by Graciela Torres who tells him that her sister Gloria was murdered two months previously and, given that she shared McCaleb’s rare blood type, it’s a virtual certainty that the heart McCaleb received was hers. With local police making no headway on the apparently random shooting, Torres asks if McCaleb would be willing to look into the murder. McCaleb agrees, and of course makes all manner of shocking discoveries along the way…
Any seeds of detection?
Pleasingly, yes. Connelly was a reporter for the L.A. Times before becoming a writer, and all twenty-plus of his books that I’ve read — well, all except career low point Chasing the Dime (2002) — have a solid basis in procedure and process. He knows that an investigation can only be progressed by evidence that offers a new perspective on a crime, rather than just because someone swans in and says they’re looking into something, and so McCaleb has to go about his task with justification behind his actions. The investigation done by the LAPD runs into a wall early on and, with ever-mounting workload, has been shelved by the pair assigned to it, and McCaleb reviews the evidence, finds the cracks, and prises them apart with mostly very pleasing rigour.
For the classicist in me there is also much to enjoy. There’s a repeated refrain of something that is quite breathtakingly subtle, and were John Dickson Carr to employ exactly the same approach I’d be raving over it and so I must give Connelly credit for a superbly clever piece of hiding. Additionally, there are two pieces of classic GAD styling in this, too — including a clue-drop that screams in your face and most people will simply sail past. Indeed, it’s on account of my memory of these two aspects that I had wanted to pick this up for some time now, and that urge has given rise to this series of posts. Was I accurately remembering how explicitly some things were shown, as I failed to do with a particular Agatha Christie title? Is the early introduction of a key piece of misdirection really as blatant as I recalled? In both cases the answer is pleasingly “yes”: puzzle fans would, I imagine, get quite a kick out of the game Connelly plays here, with McCaleb a pleasingly old-school investigator in the Amateur Detective mould, and a plot that, while perhaps not standing up to full scrutiny, would take a lot of even very well-read GAD fans by surprise.
I say that now, and so guarantee that I will endure a tidal wave of “Well, I saw it coming”s from all y’all, but at least you’ll get to feel smug about spotting one of what I consider to be the best twists hidden in plain sight in a (relatively) contemporary crime novel. Goddamn, it’s 21 years old. Dude, I need to stop doing this to myself.
Can you go home?
Oh, man, do I have a lot of thoughts on this here. Probably the starkest difference that struck me rereading this was how the justification for investigation was so different in GAD, and how it’s surely this which has led to the development of the modern crime-thriller genre. In GAD, detectives detect because they’re detectives — S.S. van Dine would be delighted by this, no doubt — and they’re on the scene of a crime. Sure, Miss Marple talks about Evil and Lord Peter Wimsey would reflect on the nature of the job he was doing in sending so many men to the hangman, but for the most part these people — Dr. Lancelot Priestley, Miss Silver, Inspector Cockrill, John Poole, Superintendent Battle, Mrs. Bradley, Inspector Edward Beale…whatever their idiom — detected a crime in their vicinity because, well, someone had broken the law and therefore it bore looking into. But for a modern reader, that perhaps isn’t enough, and so we get justification:
When he was an agent, he had carried with him a bottomless reservoir of rage for the men he hunted. He had seen firsthand what they had done and he wanted them to pay for the horrible manifestations of their fantasies, Blood debts had to be paid in blood. That was why in the bureau’s serial killer unit the agents called what they did ‘blood work’. There was no other way to describe it. And so it worked on him, cut at him, every time one didn’t pay. Every time one got away.
And more justification:
When he had been with the bureau, he had been driven and consumed by a mission, a calling. And when he carried it out and was successful, he knew he was making a difference. Better than any heart surgeon, he was saving lives from horrible ends. He was facing off against the worst kinds of evil, the most malignant cancers, and the battle, though always wearing and painful, gave his life its meaning.
And even more justification:
McCaleb believed there was a sacred bond between the victim and the investigator. All homicide cops understood this. Some took it straight to the heart. Some less so, simply as a matter of psychological survival. But it was there in all of them. It didn’t mater if you had religion, if you believed that the soul of the departed watched over you. Even if you believed that all things ended with the final breath, you still spoke for the dead. Your name was whispered on the last breath. But only you heard it. Only you knew it. No other crime came with such a covenant.
Now, I’m not knocking Connelly for writing this style of book — as I say, I’ve read a score of his novels at least, possibly closer to one-and-a-half score — it’s just interesting to note how different the approach is. When Hercule Poirot finds a clue planted in his luggage and sees that the murderer is seeking to beard him in his den, he simply mutters a French oath and goes about finding the bugger. In fact, the attempt to introduce some such driving necessity into Poirot’s character was one of the most deeply flawed notes in Sarah Phelps’ deeply flawed adaptation of The A.B.C. Murders (2018) because of how unnecessary that sort of psychology is in this idiom. The commission of a crime was in itself a sufficiently heinous thing, and ladling on the outrage or the moral shock at such turpitude was thoroughly needless. For me, the quiet refusal to accept that such deeds go unpunished is far more heroic than such jeremiads as above, but I appreciate that it’s all part of the development of the genre.
The word that kept coming to mind throughout rereading this was “verisimilitude”, because there seems to be a repeated refrain of needing to show you how real this world is. Now, fine, this might come in part from the novel being a standalone after five series books (Connelly’s first standlaone novel, The Poet (1996), is, if anything, even more mired in this concern) — it’s interesting to note a posteriori how this was simply a piece in a larger shared universe Connelly obviously had in mind at the time — but in contrast to your standard GAD novel it’s a marked change. Now, yes, the GAD novel was written with a different intent, each case rarely if ever having any impact on the next, with Gideon Fell as blundering and wonderful in The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) as he is fourteen cases later in He Who Whispers (1946), so I’m not claiming that this more modern approach is in any way failing in aping the classics, but it’s interesting to me to pull out these comparisons now I’m far more mired in the older school.
Case in point: when your GAD amateur detective stumbles across his opposite number from Scotland Yard in media res on a murder investigation, the two share a nod and your Detective Inspector says “I haven’t seen you since the Honeywell case” — a case which may or may not have been written up in a previous volume. In Blood Work, every time McCaleb encounters someone with whom he has worked before, the narrative veers into a three page description of the case, the suspect, the methodology or perversity of the killer, the insight McCaleb brought, the opposition he faced from locals who resented the FBI being brought in, the evidence gathered and what was overlooked, the intuition McCaleb had accrued long the way…and, I’m not exaggerating, this happens on five occasions over the course of this book. Hell, even the photo McCaleb has taped to his wall — clearly that of a victim whose killer went uncaught — is the jumping-off point for a tale of quite disturbing depravity, and comes late enough in the narrative, and following all the above justifications and more, than it doesn’t really serve any purpose except to point out how seriously he takes his job and feels the pain of one getting away. All of which we know. Quite thoroughly.
Arguably there might be an aspect of necessity in some of this detail — for plot purposes, I mean — but even if that’s the case, urf, doesn’t it ever get wearing. There’s a beautifully simple idea at the core of this, and one that on first reading I remember flooring me, but this time around I just felt the need to get on with it. A lot of padding goes into thrillerish shenanigans and McCaleb talking up his progress in order to grift his way onto the investigation…and, of course, there’s the Inevitable Medical Emergency that leads to his doctor sternly warning him of how this anti-malingering is going to cost him dearly, etc, etc. None of this bothered me last time, but with older eyes I can see the difficulty in not just how these add really nothing to the plot but also how the eventual scheme doesn’t quite come across as well as it should (there are, it has to be said, a few fudges where motive and precise intent are involved).
And, perhaps most egregiously, the solution is reached by pure intuition and accident. On three separate occasions, McCaleb through almost pure accident ends up looking at something which intuitively sets him on the right track — giving rise to the very clever links that tie it all together, no question, but thrice in the same book? C’mon, Mike, you’re better than that. It’s a damp squib of a realisation second time around and, while I remain convinced that the core idea is wicked smart, it’s nevertheless a shame to come away with a slightly deflated opinion of this in light of the preceding reading I’ve now done. For the curious GADer, seeking out the principle deployed in an interesting way, however, it comes recommended. And, yes, I know you saw it coming; no need to tell me.
As a complete aside, mainly because it amuses me, I wanted to mention the future of this book and how is played into Connelly’s plan overall. It was filmed in 2002 by Clint Eastwood — I’ve not seen it, because the trailer is hilariously pedestrian, shot in that boring middle-distance way Eastwood frames all his movies — in which, bizarrely, the identity of the killer is changed to another character in this book. In his tenth book A Darkness More Than Night (2000), Connelly folded the McCaleb universe into his main Harry Bosch series, and then his fourteenth book The Narrows (2004) was a sequel to Blood Work book and movie, A Darkness More Than Night, and the aforementioned The Poet…and features the character who is the killer in the Blood Work movie explaining to Bosch how he wasn’t actually the killer in ‘real’ life and had issues with the film studio over that aspect of the film.