Michael Connelly is one of those former journalists turned best-selling novelists whom current journalists can’t help but envy. One they admire and respect but also, basically, whose career they want to steal. Robert Harris is another. So is Bill Bryson. And Michael Frayn. And David Simon, who co-wrote The Wire after a stint on The Baltimore Sun.
We’re not jealous of Stieg Larsson, ex-hack that he was before he wrote the Millennium trilogy, because he died tragically young. Nor Charles Dickens, because any comparison would be presumptuous. But Connelly, who quit life as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times in 1994, aged 38, and has published 37 books (some of them filmed for cinema and television, some of which he has executive produced), he has lived the dream.
“I enjoyed being a journalist,” he says. “It was fun and my press pass got me into police departments, which was invaluable as a crime writer. But my plan was always to write novels.”
He’s pals with Stephen King and Carl Hiaasen. He gets to hang out with Matthew McConaughey (who starred in the film adaptation of Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer) and Titus Welliver (who plays Connelly’s hero Harry Bosch in the eponymous long-running Amazon series).
In the police/private-eye crime fiction pantheon, Bosch probably ranks below Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, but in modern times he’s on a par with Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus and Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther. Moreover, Connelly is respected yet not so famous as to get hassled in the street. Perfect. He is also, I discover, having spent an hour and a half with him on the balcony of his room at the Covent Garden Hotel, a thoroughly likable man.
What’s more, Connelly’s series, most of them featuring Bosch and his more recent heroine Renée Ballard, are not mere entertainments (not that there’s anything wrong with entertainment); they also pass comment on contemporary events in the United States. Having started with the post-Rodney King LA riots in 1992, in his last book, The Dark Hours, Connelly comments on the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at police hands in the summer of 2020. “I’m way beyond just writing a good tight plot puzzle whodunit. You’ve got to have something that makes you feel like there’s a higher game to it. It almost feels like a duty, with this amazing life I’ve been given, not to mail it in.”
Unlike some other thriller veterans, the standard of Connelly’s work remains laudably high. The prose is unflashy and deceptively engaging. You’re reading about some obscure detail of forensic work and thinking, “This shouldn’t be as interesting as it is.”
“It’s more craft than art,” Connelly says. “And there’s a pride in that. People say I’m prolific but compared to what I did in newspapers, this is a breeze. Publishers even let you blow off deadlines, even though you only have one a year.”
Connelly’s politics are “pretty liberal, I’m a Democrat, not that there is much choice these days” and yet his prose suggests a degree of sympathy toward the police, even after the Black Lives Matter movement. “I did a talk at Blackwell’s in Oxford last night,” he says, “and was asked if I found it difficult writing about someone serving in a ‘racist bureaucracy’. I’m bothered by blanket statements like that because I know so many good people in the LAPD. These people are beyond just being sources, they’re my friends. Are there racists in the LAPD? Of course there are, but they’re not the ones I’m looking to be inspired by.”
“I’m way beyond just writing a good tight plot puzzle whodunit. You’ve got to have something that makes you feel like there’s a higher game to it.”
Does he know detectives like Ballard and Bosch? “There are people that had his dedication, that feel like outsiders even though they represent the state and carry badges and guns. There were people like that. I don’t know if there’s any now. Most of the detectives that helped me with the Bosch books, that had those qualities, are aging out. Right now, the detective Mitzi Roberts, the detective I based Ballard on, she’s still fighting the good fight. She’s a lot younger.”
Roberts heads the LAPD cold-case unit, just as Ballard does in Connelly’s recent books. “Mitzi caught the guy considered the most prolific serial killer in US history, Sam Little. He died in prison in 2020. He killed people no one cared about, that’s how he stayed under the radar for four decades. She connected cases and ran them down.” Does she get hassled for her connection to him? “Internally, there’s probably jealousies,” he says carefully. “She’s indicated that to me. She gets in the paper all the time because she’s solving cases, not because I based Renée Ballard on her.”
The cold-case archive for the LAPD jurisdiction alone runs to 6,000 unsolved homicides dating back to the 1960s, with the annual murder rate running at about 400 a year. I tell Connelly there were just shy of 600 murders in the UK last year, compared with around 20,000 in the US. That’s 33 times as many murders among a population five times higher. I ask: where are you on gun control?
“Where you’d expect,” he says, sighing. “I don’t know why we have all these guns.” Has he got one? “No. I’ve never owned a gun. When I started writing these novels, I did shoot a gun to see what it was like. The range had this aluminum roof, my gun ejected a shell, it hit the roof, bounced back and lodged between my eyelid and my glasses and it was burning hot. That was the last time I fired a gun. I live in a city that some people perceive as dangerous but I’ve never wanted to have a gun.”
Having grown up in Fort Lauderdale, and attended the University of Florida in Gainesville, Connelly still owns a home in the Sunshine State yet has lived mainly in Los Angeles for many years. “My wife and I have one child — she’s 25 and in LA, and where she is, we want to be there.” We swap stories of conspiring to keep daughters close by. “My sneaky plan was when she was getting an apartment, I noticed there was no laundry, but didn’t mention it. So, she has to come home every Sunday.” Smart move.
He became a parent relatively late, at 41, and he reckons it revived his Bosch series. “I was a few years into the Bosch books. He wanted to be bulletproof, to carry on his mission against evil. That can only go so far, I knew I had to change things up. So, when my daughter was five years old, Bosch finds out he has a five-year-old daughter he didn’t know about. It changed his vulnerability completely. I think it saved the series, once he could be gotten to.”
Connelly’s unselfconscious mention of a “mission against evil” points to another aspect of his universe that appeals certainly to me and I suspect to many readers of American, as opposed to European, crime fiction: he believes there are fundamentally “bad people walking around”, and the important point is to take them out of circulation. I put it to him that even secularized Americans (only 11 percent identify as atheists or agnostics) are comfortable with notions of good and evil, whereas British writers, living in a post-religious society (52 percent of the British public now say they have no religious belief) shy away from invoking such faith-based notions. And yet readers on both sides of the Atlantic still vicariously enjoy tales of sin, redemption and righteous vengeance.
Connelly chuckles in the way creative people do when their work is being overanalyzed by fans. “Hey, I just write. Obviously, I’m a product of my influences. For the most part I went to Catholic schools. I’m not religious anymore and I don’t know if I ever was. So, I’m post-religious as well.”
There were just shy of 600 murders in the UK last year, compared with around 20,000 in the US.
As with other left-of-center artists whose output is beloved in the heartlands — Bruce Springsteen comes to mind — Connelly has fallen foul of online abuse when some Trumpist readers twig to his personal politics. “I get that ‘now that I know your politics, I’m not reading your books anymore’. I just think, ‘I’m glad you’re out of here.’ They think they’re making a bold statement, I think, ‘Fine, I didn’t set out to get you as reader.’ I’m 66. If someone deserts me because of something I said, my publisher won’t like it but I’m fine with that.”
With 37 books in 30 years, Connelly is prolific. He gets up at 5am so he can write for four or five hours before “other stuff starts happening. Luckily Hollywood doesn’t get going until 10 or 11.” He’ll finish a story in six to eight months, then, instead of redrafting, he’ll send it to family and friends for comments, giving them a month to respond. “I send a rough first draft to my cop friends. My wife’s a good editor because she doesn’t read crime novels, she takes a very literary view.” The couple met at university. Linda used to work in insurance, now she “handles business so I can just write. She’s got a good business mind. I came from the newspaper business, so I have a thick skin. I tell everybody, ‘Let me have it, I don’t care, you cannot hurt my feelings.’ ”
Many genre writers, I suggest, resent the literary snobbery that consigns them to “popular” as opposed to “serious” status. How does he feel? “I always quote Kurt Vonnegut. He said in the early part of his career he was dismissed as a sci-fi writer and that critics tend to put genre books, including sci-fi, in the bottom drawer of their desk. And it’s also the drawer they most often mistake as a urinal. It’s true. I get The New York Times every Sunday. In 37 novels, I’ve never had a standalone review. I’m always in the crime round-up section. But I don’t really mind because on the back pages in the best-seller lists, I’m very well represented. I’ve had editors and publicists say, ‘sorry about The New York Times’ but I’ve gotta be honest: I don’t care.”
I’m sure that’s true, I say, and great compensation, but equally most creative people want acknowledgment that they’re good at what they do. “Yeah, but I have that. Not only because people buy it but because the crime novel is just a framework to tell any kind of story you want to tell and the reason you’re on the best-seller list is the readers know that. There’s always the thing about ‘When will the next Great American Novel be published?’ Well, there won’t be a next Great American Novel that does not have a crime in it.”
We discuss how Shakespeare and Dickens were popular writers in their day, churning it out on a deadline for an audience, for money. And how John le Carré, once dismissed as a genre spy writer, is now spoken of as the greatest British novelist since the war. Not that Connelly or anyone else is saying he is in that class, just that low sales don’t always, or indeed hardly ever, equal high standards.
The other great victims of literary snobbery are, of course, comic novelists. “Yeah, I went to school with Carl Hiaasen,” he agrees, citing the brilliant satirist of Florida’s politics and social mores. “To do what he does, that’s gotta be tough. He’s so incisive. He grew up in Fort Lauderdale too. My mother was a bank teller in the bank owned by his father’s law firm. I knew his brother, Rob, better. He was in my class at journalism school. It was a tough class, very competitive. Woodward and Bernstein meant everyone wanted to take down a president.” Rob Hiaasen, a columnist on The Capital newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, was shot and killed in a mass shooting at his office in 2018.
We move naturally on to Elmore Leonard, the writers’ writer supreme. “He was pretty amazing. I met him several times. The last time I saw him he was really frail. When I said goodbye, I hugged him and he kind of pushed me away and said, ‘I’m not dead yet.’ You often find with guys who write satire, he was a very serious guy in real life. Not a laugh-a-minute guy. Neither is Carl.”
Connelly’s other Fort Lauderdale literary connection is with John D MacDonald, the 1960s-1980s thriller writer described by Kingsley Amis as “better than Saul Bellow”. MacDonald’s hero, Travis McGee, lived on a houseboat, the Busted Flush, moored at the Bahia Mar marina, where as a kid Connelly worked as a dishwasher in the hotel. “They never rented the slip, F-18, where the Busted Flush was docked. That’s how I discovered MacDonald, aged 14.”
While his mother was a bank teller, Connelly’s dad was a builder. Family fortunes fluctuated. His interest in crime fiction came about partly from his mother’s love of the genre. “She loved British detectives, PD James. I read that stuff and enjoyed it, but it wasn’t hard-boiled enough for me.” He got into true crime books. Then an interest in crime reporting was sparked by an incident driving home from his dishwashing stint when he was 16.
He saw a man stash what turned out to be a gun in a bush, told the police, tailed the man to a biker bar and then spent a night at the station trying and failing to identify the culprit from a series of identity parades of burly men with long hair and big beards. “I was assigned to this tough-guy detective. He thought I was afraid. To make the ID. It became a thing and it didn’t end well, but it got me interested in detectives and crime. I read in the paper the suspect had shot a guy.”
Seven years later, by now a crime reporter, he met the detective again. “He remembered me as the kid who wouldn’t step up. Typical police tunnel vision: they thought they had their man and I wasn’t going to be talked into it. The case was never solved. I covered that department for three years. I think I got his respect. I heard later he read my books. I don’t write for cops, so it becomes the highest compliment when they read my stuff.”
Connelly mentions that that morning, he’d seen Joel Coen and Frances McDormand in his hotel having breakfast. It prompts me to ask him if he has many celebrity friends. He says he sees Stephen King “every now and then. I love his stuff and he’s been extremely kind to me. We have places in Florida 20 minutes apart. If we’re both there, we meet up. We mostly talk about baseball.” He has no desire for fame. “I’ve spent time with Titus Welliver and he cannot go anywhere without being recognized and stopped. It’s usually ‘I love what you’re doing’ but it’s very intrusive. That doesn’t appeal to me at all.
“I’ve sat next to people on planes reading my books and I learned early on not to say anything. I once said to this lady, ‘How do you like that book?’ and she said, ‘It’s just something to pass the time.’ Now I keep my mouth shut.”
But you must get a thrill seeing this, I say, holding up the page proof listing his back catalogue. “Yeah,” he shrugs, “it’s a decent body of work.”
Robert Crampton is a journalist for The Times of London. He is also the author of How to Be a Beta Male