Echo Echo Mar 6, 2007
Recent coast-to-coast flights gave me time to enjoy two cop novels that reveal a lot about the genre and maybe about us. Echo Burning is the 2001 Lee Child potboiler featuring Jack Reacher; Echo Park is the newest Michael Connelly police procedural starring Harry Bosch. Both are airport books that demand little of a reader other than the ability to suspend disbelief and enjoy. Both feature attractive, tough guy heroes and both are the work of stylists at the top of their craft.
These writers locate their stories with such a sure sense of place that you may end up at the wrong baggage carousel when the flight lands. Connelly lives in Florida but sets his Harry Bosch stories in Los Angeles. Bosch is a fully caffeinated homicide detective with the LAPD Open-Unsolved crimes unit (ed: what crimes are all the other units investigating?). Connelly once worked as a police journalist in LA; his accounts of police and DA politics have the ring of someone who has been there. Connelly writes ready-to-shoot noir screenplays. Hopefully somebody will want to film 'em dark and sinister again.
Child works harder to build a sense of place. This is partly because he is a Brit and partly because his chosen hero, ex MP Jack Reacher, is an itinerant freelancer who has previously set things straight in Indiana, Maine, Florida, Georgia, Washington, DC, and South Carolina (including a memorable visit to Paris). Echo Burning takes place in the high heat of August in Echo County Texas, some distance from Pecos.
If Connelly channels Raymond Chandler, Child lives in the thrall of Zane Grey. Child manages a credible rendering of the desolation, scale, and hellish heat of West Texas but his caricature of the locals are from someone who has inhaled too deeply at the BBC. White locals are redneck racist imbeciles whether they are waitresses, sheriffs, or ranch hands. Mexicans are uniformly handsome and noble whether they are Texas Rangers or campesinos (one Mexicana quotes Balzac to Reacher -- I kid you not). In Child's Texas, all immigrants are exploited, all judges are corrupt, and justice for the underdog comes only from Reacher's indignant fists.
Unless of course, it comes from a lovely young pro bono attorney hot off the Harvard press. She is Alice Amanda Aaron, a triple-A do-gooder who is tracking nicely to be Reacher's lover for this adventure until she mentions that she is (this lame software will not allow the word L** ES ** B/**IA**N). Gotta hate it when that happens, but Reacher takes it like a man.
Thus is our lean, 6'4" hero condemned to his first chaste episode. Like Harry, he permits himself the occasional seduction but only after appropriate introspection and usually only after the woman quite insists. Both men observe a limit of one affair per book that would amuse 007, but hey, it's the twenty-first century.
The limit on dead or incapacitated is 5-10 times higher. In Burning, Child invokes the spirit of Clay Allison, the Gentleman Gunfighter, whose gravestone proclaims that "he never killed a man that did not need killing". Both Jack and the smaller but no less lethal Harry would understand. They dispense mayhem with skill and gusto, even though both are periodically subjected to postmodern post mortems for their heroic efforts. They patiently tolerate the girly-men bureaucrats whose second-guessing of heavy handed tactics recalls the hapless headline in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle: "When Police Officers Resort to the Use of Deadly Force". Reacher and Bosch understand that "Cops Who Kill" reads better, but leaves far too much white space.
Both Child and Connelly are gifted at the pacing, character development, dialog, and twisting plot lines that form the core of their craft. In Texas, Reacher comes to the aid of Carmen Greer, an attractive Mexican woman who picks him up hitchhiking outside Lubbock. Carmen confesses that her abusive husband, Sloop Greer is getting out of prison soon and is terrified that he will beat her again. Would Reacher terribly mind, you know, killing the guy? Reacher declines, but joins Carmen at her ranch, where Sloop ends up dead thanks to bullets from the small pistol that Reacher reluctantly taught Carmen to shoot. Reacher and Alice battle punks, hired assassins, schemers, and thieves to win the day. Inspiring pool hall fight. Imaginative gunfight in a nighttime Texas downpour. Nice surprise ending before Jack Reacher does what he always does: boards the next Greyhound out of town with nothing more than the clothes on his back, a folding toothbrush and a bit of cash in his pocket. Great stuff and it makes the skinny leather seats on Jet Blue a lot more tolerable.
In Los Angeles, meanwhile, Harry Bosch is haunted by another one that got away. In 1993 a 22-year-old equestrian named Marie Gesto was abducted and never seen again. Thirteen years later, Bosch gets a break when a chance police stop of a suspicious vehicle in LA's Echo Park neighborhood nabs serial killer Raynard Waits who's carrying body parts in his van.Waits confesses that he was responsible for killing Gesto, nine other women, and a pawnshop owner. The cynical Bosch comes to suspect that Waits is lying and helping somebody to avoid execution. Infighting caused by the upcoming DA election, the return of FBI profiler Rachel Walling (a Bosch love interest introduced in The Poet and last seen in The Narrows) and evidence that Harry may have made a critical mistake in his earlier handling of the case that permitted the subsequent murders all serve to destabilize the chronically exhausted Bosch (who is nearing 60 in this book, since Connelly ages his characters real time). Notes Connelly: "Bosch considered himself a true detective, one who took it all inside and cared. Everybody counts or nobody counts. . . . It made him good at the job but it also made him vulnerable. The mistakes could get to him and this one was the worst of all mistakes."
Connelly is the reigning master of the modern procedural. He writes in layers with threads pulled in from previous books and a half dozen plot narratives moving forward at once. He paints Los Angeles like, well, like Hieronymus Bosch, Harry's real name. He knows the restaurants, the streets, the smells, and the stories. In a dozen Harry Bosch novels, he has painted heaven and heck and has even worked Dante himself into more than one novel. Connelly obviously loves LA -- almost enough to live there.
Great getaway fight. Superior and very dark final confrontation. Surprise ending with encore, both uncharacteristically telegraphed. Bogus breakup with Rachel. Not sure how many more of these Bosch can do -- or how many Connelly will let him do. The future of his personal and professional partnerships is very up in the air by the end. Frankly, I'm concerned.