MICHAEL CONNELLY is on a roll. He is the number-one New York Times bestselling author of two beloved series and has won nearly every major award granted to crime writers. Bosch, the acclaimed television adaptation of his hit series featuring LAPD Detective Harry Bosch, is entering a fourth season on Amazon Prime. A film based on his novel, The Lincoln Lawyer, arguably launched Matthew McConaughey’s trajectory toward an Academy Award. Given that track record, plenty of authors would stick to the tried and true, happy to have created two of the most iconic protagonists in contemporary crime fiction.
Instead, Connelly has ventured into new territory for his 30th novel, The Late Show. The book introduces LAPD Detective Renee Ballard, who has been banished to the graveyard shift in Hollywood, busting her butt on the cases she catches overnight, only to turn them over to other detectives in the morning. Ballard shares some characteristics with Bosch — she’s a department outsider with a tenacious commitment to justice and few personal relationships — but the similarities end there. She’s also undoubtedly strong enough to carry her own series, and it’s clear by the end of The Late Show that her story has only begun. I spoke to Michael Connelly about the newest addition to Connelly Land.
ALAFAIR BURKE: An obvious first question: You already have two beloved series characters, Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller. Why introduce a new protagonist, Renee Ballard?
MICHAEL CONNELLY: There were three things pushing me toward Ballard. The first was that I knew I was embarking on writing my 30th book, which was something I never thought would ever happen, but since it was going to I thought I might as well mark the moment with something new. At this same time I happened to turn 60 years old — another thing I never thought would happen — and thoughts of mortality led me toward feeling that I had a duty as a storyteller not to rest on my laurels. I had not gone out with a new protagonist in 10 years. It was about time I did something new.
And the last thing was the clincher. On the TV show Bosch, we use real LAPD homicide detectives as accuracy consultants and one of them, Detective Mitzi Roberts, told me about her stint as the graveyard shift detective in Hollywood, about how you handle all kinds of cases — basically rolling on any call for a detective. Added to that I had seen Roberts as a detective and knew she was determined and fierce, qualities I love to put into my characters. I suddenly knew who and what I was going to write about.
In case you don’t know, other crime writers envy the bench of law enforcement sources you’ve cultivated over the years, whom you’ve generously credited for helping you with background information. You just mentioned the real life counterpart to Ballard. How important is anchoring your novels in the lives and cases of real people?
It is vitally important because I am no creative genius. I am a journalist at heart and so rather than sit in a room and try to make it up, I go out like a reporter to get the real stuff. That is where inspiration lies for me. I wish I was a creative genius but I’m really just a fisherman who can throw out a nice spread of net. I then pull up all kinds of stuff — anecdotes, clever pieces of dialogue, sometimes whole book stories — and my skill is that I know how to pick and choose what’s come up in the net, slap on a layer of fiction, and then cobble it all together into story. But every time a reader or a critic points to a particular thing in a book and says I love this part, I know it is something I didn’t make up. I always remember who and where I got it.
I’m always intrigued by the connection between protagonist and plot, especially in series novels. In The Late Show, Ballard’s working nonstop, but readers primarily follow her investigative work in three cases. Could you have written this same plot as either a Bosch or Haller novel? In other words, how did the introduction of Ballard change the narrative of the raw facts that comprise the novel’s plot?
I think there are similarities between the three characters but I hope Renee is uniquely her own woman. I think the plotting of The Late Show is really only matched to her, a woman operating in the male-dominated society of the police department. I think that’s a really important part of the plot and obviously works only with her. In the book, her partner reminds her of the Japanese adage that the nail that sticks out gets pounded down. Renee is surrounded by hammers in the department, and I think that makes this her story and nobody else’s.
There’s a lively debate in literary circles these days about the risks of authors writing characters from other cultural backgrounds. Renee Ballard is a mixed-race woman brought up in Hawaii; other important characters include Ramona Ramone, a Latina transgender prostitute, and Beatrice Beaupre, an African-American porn star. Did you hear critical voices in your head as you ventured into their stories?
Not really. I usually just keep my head down and write the story I want to write with the characters I want to put in it. There is a degree of safety in writing crime fiction because it’s usually not taken seriously enough to criticize on social and cultural levels. Now, having said that, I should just say I disagree with any contention that a writer must stick to his or her own culture, gender, sexual preference, et cetera. A writer needs to go wherever inspiration leads.
I love the way you use quotidian details to flesh out the lives of your characters, down to the level of Mickey Haller’s choice of office supplies. The Late Show devotes more than two pages to Ballard’s waxing of a “shorty” board. Why is Ballard’s connection to the water as a surfer important, and how the heck do you know so much about surfboards?
I’ve done a little bit of surfing in my life but like jazz, which I put in my Bosch books, I am by no means an expert and have not been on a shorty — or a longboard, for that matter — in many, many years. But I do own a variety of paddleboards and get the same kind of evening-out feel that Ballard gets when I paddle. Anyway, to the point of your question, I think readers respond to characters who just know stuff and are thorough in the way they tackle their jobs, big and small. So, it may look like throwaway stuff but it’s really part of the pathway. It’s the way to make that much-needed connection between reader and protagonist.
I always enjoy the “Easter Eggs” you sometimes hide for watchful readers, referring to other novels in your body of work. Have you decided yet whether Ballard knows Haller and/or Bosch?
They will most likely cross paths in future books. But there are a few references — an actress whose resume includes a minor role on Bosch and the motto painted on a wall at Robbery-Homicide Division: Everybody counts or nobody counts. That’s Harry’s code, but it actually is on the wall at RHD so it was kind of cool to mention it.
Ballard, like Haller and Bosch, is a bit of an orphan. Not to play psychiatrist, but why are you so drawn to characters who are loners?
Yeah, that’s weird because it totally was not my experience. I came from a big family and parents who stayed together until the end. I think it’s just a matter of being more interested in the path not taken, exploring the other side of your own existence and experience. As you know, you make so many choices while writing and many of them, at least for me, are in regard to keeping the process engaging. What happens in the writing process happens in the reading process. So if you are not engaged, your reader certainly won’t be.
You created and continue to work closely on your TV series, Bosch, which is entering its fourth season. Do you think the process of writing a TV series has changed the way you approach a novel?
Yes, I really do. They are very different forms of storytelling, and I find screenwriting harder because it doesn’t have that key thing that we get writing books: interior thought. In the books, I get to go inside Bosch’s head and tell the reader what he’s thinking. I can’t do that in a script and so therefore the importance of dialogue and action is dramatically raised. Four years now of writing in this form have helped developed those muscles for me and, of course, I take them home with me to the books I write.
What are you working on next? Will we see more of Renee Ballard?
I just finished a Bosch novel that will be out in the fall. It’s called Two Kinds of Truth, and I am pretty pleased with it. It takes Harry in a bit of a new direction and also features Mickey Haller and the long-lost Jerry Edgar. I have not put him into a book in a long time. As far as Ballard goes, there will be more. I love the character, I have the real-life inspiration ready to help, and there is much more to be said and explore with her. To me, that’s a no-brainer. She’ll be back.