On the other side of the screen, Michael Connelly raises his wrist so that we can see the tattoo surrounding it: stars, symbols of eternity, and two words half erased by the passage of years: “hold fast (hold on),” he said, before adding at the same time: “Harry Bosch has the same tattoo.” Harry Bosch is the name of the Los Angeles police inspector to whom the writer has given body – and soul – for thirty years (in France, thirty-one in the United States). More than twenty novels, millions of readers around the world, and, since 2015, a television series, Bosch, starring the actor Titus Welliver. If Bosch, born in 1950, is a few years older than his father, Connelly shares many of his character’s traits, the love of jazz, an unfailing stubbornness and a certain indignation in the face of the flaws in American justice.
In the family of great paper investigators, Harry Bosch stands equidistant from his illustrious elders (Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe) and his popular heirs (the Norwegian author Jo Nesbo admits to being inspired by it for his Harry Hole). A prolific author, who writes a book a year, leaning eight to ten hours a day at his desk, Michael Connelly has given life to other great characters, such as the lawyer Mickey Haller, half-brother of Bosch, who is also the the subject of a series, or Inspector Renée Ballard. Trained by Bosch, the latter is its manager in The Desert Star, an addictive investigation from its first pages, devious as hell, and edifyingly precise in its mastery of the (modern) course of an investigation. On the occasion of its release, Michael Connelly answered questions from several French media, including L’Express.
L’Express: What is your view on the three decades spent alongside Harry Bosch
Michael Connelly: When I wrote his first book [Les Egouts de Los Angeles], I just had the ambition to be able to do a second one… So it’s quite incredible that the adventure continues today. I made the decision quite early on not to dedicate each book to Harry, which allowed me to avoid falling into routine and boredom. I still haven’t exhausted the character, and I don’t think he’s the type to retire. He has some health problems in the last book because he had been poisoned in a previous investigation… But since its publication in the United States, readers have written to me to tell me what remedy would cure him, I have received lots of comments. emails (smile). Still, there should be a few more books with Harry, and I hope my very last one will be dedicated to him.
What is the starting point of this new story?
I grew up in Florida, I often went to Key West until I was 30, I spent my honeymoon there, in particular. Then I moved to Los Angeles, and in recent years I started going back to Key West, and I had the idea of one of my characters going there. And one of the investigations is unfortunately inspired by a true story, the disappearance of a family in southern California. The mystery lasted for several years, until their bodies were found in the desert, where they had been buried. The story was so shocking that I wanted to write about it, and strong enough that it haunted Harry Bosch and made him continue his investigations.
What is the impact of changing police methods on your work?
One of the great challenges and one of the great joys of my job is my duty to stick to reality. I want each of my books to be very contemporary. So much has changed in the last three decades. When I started writing about Harry, cell phones didn’t exist, nor did the Internet, he carried a pager… Twenty-five years ago, I came into contact with a group of investigators, The cold case squad, who was interested in unsolved crimes.
An acquaintance of mine from my years as a journalist was assigned there, and I was able to establish links with the members of this unit. One of them inspired the character of Renée Balard and is today the head of this unit. This is extremely useful for me. I have access to procedural elements, internal things, etc. It’s a journalist’s job, except I take the facts and turn them into stories. They are classified as fiction, but are very close to reality. I try to stay up to date with technological developments as much as possible; a book I have just finished has a lot to do with artificial intelligence.
What is the influence of jazz, and improvisation, on your approach to writing?
Do you know the pianist Keith Jarrett? When he sits down at his piano, he doesn’t know what he’s going to play until his fingers touch the keys. I always thought that was the right way to write. Once the story comes to me in broad outline, I begin to write, seeing what happens each day. It’s a way of not having any constraints, no boss. If you make a plan ahead of time, it dictates what you have to write, and I don’t want that. This method is not without its drawbacks: I regularly throw away pages because I took the wrong path. It’s the price to pay. But I think a good writer can be recognized by his ability to throw away pages when they don’t work. This way of doing things is the only one I know and it has been quite successful for me until now. When I start writing, I still have an idea of the ending, which sometimes changes along the way, but for the most part, I stick to it, it’s the light at the end of the tunnel…
What is your view on the evolution of American justice?
This is what I have been writing about for thirty years, exploring the flaws in our justice system. I don’t think he’s any better today than he was thirty years ago, which may be why I continue to write about him, his dysfunctions are still appalling. We are nonetheless moving towards a model where police behavior is subject to more evaluations, due to the number of videos that exist and circulate; Today, only the stupidest police officers do reprehensible things in front of the cameras. These have changed the system considerably, balanced it a little, but there are still loopholes that people, whoever they are, can fall into. They were not sufficiently satisfied.
What are the differences in the reception of your books between Europe and the United States?
There is a deeper apprehension of Harry Bosch in countries like France or Italy. It’s refreshing and good for the ego that readers in these countries are more interested in the nature of the character; American audiences are more expecting a story where things move quickly, and are more attracted by the plot. For an author, readers who are interested in the characters, what they are doing and why, are the most rewarding.
What is your involvement in the television series Bosch, and the influence of it on your writing?
I participated in the choice of the actor, which was the most important decision. I wasn’t looking for a look so much as a mood, someone who could embody all the ghosts that Harry carries within him. I had seen Tittus Welliver in a series where he played a character with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he didn’t need to say it, you could guess. I put his name out there to the production team, we also met dozens of actors, but ultimately we all agreed on him. He doesn’t resemble the image I have of Harry, but his interiority, what he carries inside him, his haunted side.
Apart from that, I’m not very involved in the series, I realized that I could trust the production team. She probably influenced me in the sense that I write more stories with two or three narrators. On screen, you cannot have the same character for each scene, you have to develop others and better distribute the narration. What I now also do in my books… Does it influence my vision of the character? Not really, I had one in mind for twenty years, and the films or series don’t quite dislodge it.
Why do you have little interest in exploring the psychology of the killers your characters hunt?
The subject is rather well documented elsewhere, in series, newspapers, and I have never found it captivating. For me, the reasons that push an individual to do evil are quite banal. I spent a dozen years as a reporter following cops, I saw some very good ones and some very bad ones, and others who were no longer able to distance themselves from their profession because of the damage psychological effects he inflicted on them. It all fascinated me but it wasn’t really something I could write about in newspapers. When I decided to write a book, I chose to focus on the investigators, those who dedicate their lives to tracking down evil people, the dangers they face, like the risk of taking a bullet, well sure, but above all what they take home in the evening. For me, this is the most interesting subject…
The Desert Star, by Michael Connelly, trans. from English (United States) by Robert Pépin. Calmann-Lévy, 394 p., €22.90.