The Black Echo (Review)

Michael Connelly is well-regarded among a subset of mystery fans, so I thought I’d see what all the fuss is about – and I started at the begining. The Black Echo is the book that introduced the world to Heironymous "Harry" Bosch in 1992. And I did see what all the fuss is about … just as surely as I saw that it wasn’t for me.

This is the kind of book that you’ll enjoy or not depending on how your fiction preferences are calibrated. It’s one of those that has "plot" turned up really high to the detriment of character and theme development. Connelly is to detective fiction what J. Michael Straczynski is to TV scifi, more or less. He leaves absolutely all characterization to cliches. And I mean absolutely all of it. "Cartoonish" doesn’t really do this justice. Then, while he does develop some themes, he doesn’t really go into them very deeply. They’re there, which is nice, but not in a way that says anything terribly new. To make up for all that, though, he does deliver an above-average plot. Don’t let me oversell that: he’s no Ruth Rendell. But if plot is mostly what you read for, this one’s worth your time.

The hook is that a body turns up in a drainage pipe and Harry Bosch is called to the scene. It looks like a run-of-the-mill death of a tramp by accidental heroin overdose, but Harry picks up on signs that it might’ve been a murder instead. His drive to prove that it is one is made all the more accute by the fact that the dead man is someone he served with in Vietnam but hasn’t really seen since. Specifically, he and Harry were both tunnel rats, something I admit I’d never heard of before this book. Apparently Vietnam is crawling with a network of underground tunnels that predate, to a degree, even the French colonial period, and this network simply got greatly expanded by the Viet Cong during the war. Tunnel rats were the poor guys tasked with going in and clearing the enemy out of them – a hugely dangerous job.

As Harry starts to poke around, there are suggestions that his dead comrade – one Billy Meadows – might’ve been involved in a still-unsolved bank robbery that happened about 10 months prior featuring … what else? … tunnelling into the vault. Since that’s an open FBI case, he has to team up with a hot Fed named Eleanor Wish. Additionally, he’s under investigation the whole time by Internal Affairs for … well, mostly because IA just doesn’t like Harry after he slipped out of their net on an earlier case. And of course – I DID say this one left no stop unpulled on the cliches – there’s also a lot of tension between Harry and his supervisors – both in the police force and the FBI.

From that setup, you get about another 400 pages of well-plotted twists. Then you get to the ending, which goes on entirely too long and features some pretty implausible character decisions, including, unfortunately, the Just Between You and Me explanatory speech. Again, it really comes down to how relatively important character development is to you. The less important it is to have well-drawn characters, the more likely you are to enjoy this.

It’s an interesting question to what extent Connelly intended the final reveal to be surprising. On the one hand, he serves up cop book cliches with a straight enough face to indicate he’s not all that aware of them, and thus might not be aware that this ending is a fairly standard "shocker." On the other hand, there are ample textual clues throughout the book that it’s coming, so Connelly played admirably fair with the reader, never falling back to any cheap literary misdirection. Whatever the truth of that, the ending is not all that surprising. A character we’ve suspected of involvement since that character became an unduly large part of the narrative turns out to be involved. Well.

The one thing about this book that makes me think reading more in the series might be worthwhile is that the artist’s "unresolvable contradiction" is there. It’s a heuristic, not a proven algorithm, but I’ve found that a thing associated with superior books and movies is a fixation – on the part of the author – on a central, inherently unresolvable, philosophical contradction. That kind of thing seems to be here in the form of a tension between professionalism and reward. As the book closes, Harry is essentially offered a lifetime of disability benefits – 80% of his current pay to do nothing. He of course declines it. 100% of the pay for meaningful work is better. And yet there’s no suggestion that Harry should or would work for free. He does what he does because it’s in his nature, really, and pay is incidental. There has to be some financial reward, because he needs food and shelter, but it isn’t why he does the job. Ok, so far so good. But contrast this with his partner at the outset. Harry’s partner – Jerry Edgar – does real estate on the side and makes more in a good weekend than he does in a month on the force. In the opening scene, he’s called away from a house showing to look at what everyone but Harry at that point considers an open-and-shut drug overdose case. Harry makes a couple of snarky comments implying that Edgar is just easy to close the case so he can get back to making real money as a real estate agent, and the response is interesting. Edgar says that he’s never given Harry any reason to believe that he would shirk duties he’s been paid to do. It’s an interesting choice of words, because he specifically mentions the pay when he could’ve just said things he’d agreed to do. So, Edgar’s devotion to market principles goes as far as honoring contracts – but he’s not a mercenary. Once he’s accepted pay for something, he follows through, even though he could be earning more somewhere else. It’s a moral system that seems to contradict itself. After all, if you’re motivated by profit, you surely try to maximize it. And yet, if you’re not motivated by profit, why the fixation on receiving pay as the thing that obligates you to do the job to the best of your ability? Why not just frame it as honoring your word instead? We see lots of similar examples as the story progresses. Connelly seems puzzled by the intersection between contract and profit, and this comes across in his writing. People sign contracts for profit, but contracts are by nature instruments that limit profit opportunities.

I have no idea if this theme gets developed further in the series. The fact that The Lincoln Lawyer – which I saw as a movie rather than read as a book – has similar fixations leads me to believe it does – this is a central question for Connelly. So the next question is whether it’s an interesting enough "central contradiction" to sustain a series. Obviously it is for Connelly, but I’m not sure it is for me. I’m not particularly profit-driven, so I guess I feel like I already understand Harry’s perspective.

No matter, The Black Echo was an entertaining read; I don’t feel like I wasted my time. But being in the camp that would rather sacrifice plot to character rather than the other way around, it’s also clear that Connelly isn’t really my kind of writer. If I read another one of his, it will probably be in the Mickey Haller series rather than Harry Bosch. If.

Overall Rating B-

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