Another dive into the past, as I revisit the crime novels of my youth which set me on the path to classic era detection.
Today I make my first return in a long time to a much-beloved series:
Angels Flight (1999) by Michael Connelly
How I encountered this book
The first Michael Connelly book I read, as discussed before, was Blood Work (1998) and, having thoroughly enjoyed that, I then read his other (at that point) standalone novel The Poet (1996). But the majority of Connelly’s career had been spent writing about the L.A. police officer Hieronymous ‘Harry’ Bosch and received wisdom was that that series should really be read in order. So I went back to the beginning with The Black Echo (1992) and patiently began to work my way through — perhaps the first time I’d taken this approach, and one that I broadly try to maintain to this day. Angels Flight (1999) is the sixth book in the Bosch series, and along with Trunk Music (1997), one that I remember having an especially pleasing plot…even if, going into this a second time, I was astonishingly vague on what that plot actually entailed.
Side note on Blood Work: between that book and this, the rights were evidently sold to Clint Eastwood to make the movie that would become Blood Work (2002), because at one point Bosch encounters a poster for the film, and one character reflects that the protagonist of the book “doesn’t look like Clint Eastwood, if you ask me” — doubtless a nod to the response the casting received at the time. Connelly would later write a book, The Narrows (2004), which was simultaneously an entry in the Bosch series, a sequel to Blood Work, a sequel to The Poet, and an acknowledgement of some of the (perhaps controversial) changes made in the Eastwood movie. It was…a lot of balls to juggle.
What’s it about?
Howard Elias, a lawyer who has made his name suing the Los Angeles Police Department, especially in cases where his is able to exploit “his skill of probing the inflamed nerve of racism in the city”, is found shot on the Angels Flight funicular railway just days before the opening of one such trial. Called in by the powers-that-be to handle the case, it falls to Harry Bosch and his partners Jerry Edgar and Kizmin Rider to track down the man’s killer…the suspect list for which might well include every police officer in the city.
Connelly has — or had, I haven’t read a new book by him in about eight years — a real skill for this sort of thing, taking a simple murder investigation and instilling it with subtle touches that very quickly escalate the problem into something so much more. There’s a heavy artfulness in every aspect of his building, too, perhaps betokened no more effortlessly than in the early moment when one cop disdainfully refers to Elias as “a motherfucker”:
Bosch nodded. With cops the word motherfucker was rarely used. It was heard a lot by them but not used. With most cops it was reserved as being the worst thing you could say about someone. When it was said it meant one thing: that the person had crossed the righteous, that the person had no respect for the keepers of the law and therefore the rules and bounds of society. Cop killers were always motherfuckers, no questions asked. Defense lawyers got the call, most of the time. And Howard Elias was on the motherfucker list, too. Right at the top.
In later books Connelly would busy up his plots by having two seemingly unconnected thread intersect (well, in one case they didn’t…that was weird), but here the plot focusses solely on the investigation into the murders, stirring in various 90’s preoccupations — the media, red tape, the lingering scars of the 1992 L.A. riots, the burgeoning threat of the Internet — along the way to enrich the experience.
Any seeds of detection?
At this stage in his career, Connelly’s Bosch novels were essentially police procedurals with a bit of the main character’s personal life mixed in for extra interest, and in revisiting this one I see the same painstaking detail that the Golden Age would occasionally utilise so well. Almost the entire first quarter of the book is taken up with establishing the crime scene and associated concerns, and it struck me when reading this how much more quickly the likes of Robert Crais and Harlan Coben would have covered most of that stuff in a single chapter before moving on to more eye-catching things. Connelly’s books feel more grounded in a recognisable reality, in no way concerned with the snarky asides of his contemporaries’ protagonists, Bosch’s world-weary exhaustion echoing in the seriousness — sometimes, it must be said, over-seriousness — with which every element of the plot is treated.
Bosch’s style of detection is almost more reactionary than cerebral, with incidents given an interpretation based on “gut instinct based on his long years of delving into human habits” rather than logical deduction. That this often results in Bosch jumping to incorrect conclusions, or in him overlooking very plausible alternative explanations, is both frustrating and yet obviously a conscious choice on Connelly’s part to instil his detective with a little fallibility (he carries a key clue around with him for about half the book without realising he has it, that sort of thing). When a phone book which Bosch believes to be important vanishes from Elias’ apartment, for instance, Bosch is quick to assume that one of the detectives assigned to him, with whom he has something of a history, is responsible for its disappearance:
“I didn’t take it. If it’s not there, then somebody came in and took it after we left.”
Bosch stopped. It was an obvious explanation but it hadn’t even entered his mind. He had automatically thought of Chastain. He looked down at the tiles, embarrassed by how he’d let an old animosity cloud his judgment. He could hear the elevator gate opening on the fifth floor. He raised his eyes, fixed Chastain with a bloodless stare and pointed at his face.
“I find out otherwise, Chastain, I promise I’ll take you apart.”
Some observations come from intelligent thinking, though, such as a number written in darker ink in that phone book (remember keeping your own, personal phone book? Crazy times) or a bed that has been made in that otherwise-unkempt apartment. The one piece of observational reasoning which gets any credit — the “hard-boiled eggs case” about which “a [newspaper] story [had been written] that exaggerated Bosch’s skills to the point where he seemed like a distant relative of Sherlock Holmes” — doesn’t hold water for me, however. I seem to remember a similar, more convincing, observation in another Bosch novel in which he was able to deduce the handedness of a burglar based on how he used the toilet in the apartment he was robbing, though, so maybe this was just a thing Connelly played around with from time to time to remind us that more goes on outside of these books and that not all cases require 400 pages to reach their resolution.
Connelly also, disappointingly, wants it both ways when introducing what might be the one Golden Age style clue there is. When a friend of Bosch’s is arrested for the murders on account of his commendation for excellent marksmanship at the gun range, Bosch scoffs that “[t]hey give those pins out like candy at the range. I bet seven or eight out of every ten cops have that ribbon”, yet once the killer is unmasked we’re supposed to see significance in Bosch “notic[ing] the sharpshooter ribbon on [the killer’s] uniform below the badge”. So which is it? Because the same evidence must surely have the same weight whoever it applies to — indeed, there’s even “a saying when we can’t explain things. The evidence is what it is”…so what is it? Dismissible or meaningful? One of the tenets of good, evidence-based detection is that seeing the right object or event in the right way changes the nature of that clue, but here we seem to be twisting the clue to fit the story.
Can you go home?
In stark contrast to almost every other book I’ve read in this endeavour, and certainly to the majority of books written in the Golden Age, what really comes through in Angels Flight is the sense of time and change, of a city having to respond to the events of its past and being forced to live with them well into its future. Whether Connelly is drawing threads from the riots in 1992, or the changing perception of the police force in the public eye in the wake of O.J. Simpson’s trial for murder, what’s impressive here is the sheer amount of weight given to the past as it makes itself felt in the present narrative. The murder of Elias is deliberately staged by Connelly to ruffle the fictional feathers of this very real city, and without overwhelming you he makes it very clear just how closely recent events press through.
Reading something that went to such pains to remind you of the social considerations of its age really brought home to me how so much of what we glean of the era through Golden Age fiction is incidental, and how, in the case of many authors regarding the Second World War, often the state of the world in which these plots happen is excluded altogether. Sure, the likes of Henry Wade would address treatment of the military directly, and practically every GAD author worth their salt wrote something set in or around the Blackout, but the closest the detection I typically read came to any social complexities was someone making a passing reference to income tax or the paucity of good servants.
That said, this also takes a turn I did not remember — seriously, my memory of who the killer was, which sprang to mind when they first appeared, turned out to be completely wrong — into an area that I started to find increasingly wearisome and distasteful in the modern crime novels. The increasing ubiquity and understanding of the Internet gave rise to some fascinating and brilliant thrillers — The Blue Nowhere (2001) by Jeffery Deaver, say, which reminds me that I really should revisit some Deaver in this endeavour — but also resulted in a lot of ‘internet predators’ storylines like the one this veers into for its final third. And, yes, the opportunities for distatseful crimes did increase exponentially as the Internet grew, so this is in keeping with the book’s placement in a real, functional world that represents many aspects of the real world, but that’s also not the sort of thing I enjoy reading any more. I’m frankly amazed that I had forgotten it was a part of this one, but then it seemed like every other crime novel in the late 90s and early 2000s revolved around child and/or sexual abuse in one way or another.
So, can you go home? Yes, but you’ll often find the place looking different, and with aspects you once failed to consider that now jar and disappoint you. Any book telling the reader that “[r]evealing a killer in court was Perry Mason stuff. It almost never happened” would have doubtless struck a note in Young Jim for the verisimilitude that he craved in the crime fiction he was reading back then, but Older Jim quite likes the idea of Perry Mason unveiling a killer to the gasps of his audience; a bit of unreality goes a long way in fiction sometimes, and I have a feeling that that distance increases the older I get.
Going Home on The Invisible Event: