SCOTT SIMON, Host:
When Michael Connelly was a young police reporter, he spent some time at a detective bureau of the Fort Lauderdale police department and watched a sergeant who used to take off his glasses to rub his eyes. Michael Connelly noticed there was a deep groove cut into the ear piece where the sergeant used to clench his glasses in his mouth, while he looked deeply into the faces of the dead.
It was, as they say in journalism, the telling detail, the description that discloses a reporter has been on the scene. It was a quality that Mr. Connelly vowed to bring to the fiction with which he was already experimenting.
More than 20 years later Michael Connelly is one of America's most admired and best-selling crime novelists whose books include The Black Echo, The Concrete Blonde, Trunk Music and City of Bones.
Mr. Connelly's latest book revisits some of the true crimes that he covered and that inspire his fiction. It's called Crime Beat. Michael Connelly joins us in our studios. Thanks very much for being with us.
MICHAEL CONNELLY: I'm glad to be here.
SIMON: And looking back on it, what was that sergeant trying to do when he looked into the faces of the bodies?
CONNELLY: I don't know. I mean I actually asked him about it, at the time, and he wanted to keep that personal. And so I had all this kind of imagination that there was some sort of communion with the dead or some kind of promise I'm gonna find who did this.
There's a theory in one of my books that you can only see so many dead people before you've seen enough. And maybe, it was — he was getting close to that line.
SIMON: You were, as you recounted, 16 when you saw somebody who may have figured into a crime and it changed your life. And...
CONNELLY: Yeah. I mean, if you get a chance to look back on your life and figure out, well, how did I get here from there, I kind of pinpoint that one night and this was also in Fort Lauderdale, when I was growing up. And I saw a man running. I saw him hide a gun. And by calling the police, I got pulled into, as a witness, a crime investigation. It was what would later be called a carjacking that had gone wrong and he ended up shooting the guy he was trying to take the car from.
And so I spent, basically, a night in a police station. And to that point, I didn't really have an interest in this world. But after that point, I started by reading the crime news and newspapers and went to true rime, eventually led me to say, you know, I want to try to do this myself. I want to write these kind of stories.
SIMON: I want to ask you, obviously, about some of the crime stories that you covered that you go over in this book.
Christopher Bernard Wilder, who passed himself successfully as a photographer, even to other photographers.
CONNELLY: Yeah. He was a serial killer. And that was his modus operandi. He faked that he was a fashion photographer and that got him close to young women. And some of those young women started disappearing. And it wasn't like he worked in a void. He definitely was associated with other photographers. He showed up at, like the Miss Florida Pageant, you know, and was in the photographer pool. And so he definitely was, you know, a smooth operator and was able to do this for a number of years before it started to unravel, and he went on the run, basically.
SIMON: He outfitted his own studio, he took advantage of the fact that they wanted to be famous.
CONNELLY: Yeah. That was, that was like the kind of social comment on the whole story, that these women — I think he killed 11 women and abducted 13, two of them survived, but they were drawn to the prospect of being famous.
SIMON: What can a crime novel do?
CONNELLY: A crime novel can do a lot of things. I mean, that's one of the reasons I'm drawn to it. I mean, obviously on one level as an entertainment. You know, it's a puzzle. And it's been functioning on that level for more than a hundred years. But I think in the recent evolutions of the crime novel has been to be a mirror, a social reflection of what's happening in our society. We have an idea of how it works. We all have an idea of how it should work. And in my books, I try to say this how it really does work.
SIMON: I found myself fascinated, I think, by one of simpler seeming stories in your book. A nurse name Lucille Marie Warren was coming home, 6:45 in the morning, and she stopped to help a man who was hurt in the street.
CONNELLY: Yeah. When I was sent up the Hill to write about that because it was a scene...
SIMON: You mean the Hollywood Hills.
CONNELLY: Yeah, the Hollywood Hills, it's a neighborhood where this kind of crime doesn't happen, murders. In fact, this murder happened right in front of David Hockney's house. So it was that kind of neighborhood. This woman stopped for a guy lying in the street. She was a nurse. She thought he needed help. When she ran to him, he turned around and stabbed her. He killed her. And it turned out it was a former boyfriend. And he knew this woman, as a nurse, would stop for him.
So he gets caught. He gets arrested and charged, and goes to trial and is convicted. And the prosecutors wanted to have an extra crime called lying in wait, which would make him eligible for a death penalty. And you think that makes common sense. The guy was actually lying in the street. That's lying in wait.
SIMON: It's lying in wait more than people who hide in the hedges do...
SIMON: ...because they're usually crouching or standing. Yeah.
CONNELLY: But on appeal that was actually struck, that part of the charge, because the interpretation of the judge's, of the statute about lying in wait actually is hiding. You know, and this guy was not hiding. He was lying in plain sight. So here was a case where a man, obviously, lying in wait, under the eyes of the law was not lying in wait. And I think the irony of that is a perfect, you know, statement about what doesn't always work right in our justice system.
SIMON: Hmm. With exception, in novels, a plot has to work out. It doesn't mean that the right person gets found...
SIMON: ...or convicted, or that justice is served. But it has to work out, that there aren't loose ends. There has to be this satisfaction of...
SIMON: ...for a reader to think that they know what went on. But in so much police work and true crime work, that's just not true. Is it?
CONNELLY: No. I mean, that was the strange transformation I had to go through. When I quit being a journalist in '94, I cleared out my file cabinets. You know, I think at the time, Los Angeles, the clearance rate for homicide was around 70 percent. So that means three out of 10 times somebody was getting away with murder. That's like an awful statement for our society. And I was moving into this world of crime fiction, where it's about — clearance rate has to be about 99 percent. You know, the reader is looking for fulfillment, the end of the puzzle.
SIMON: Why do we find crime so fascinating?
CONNELLY: I don't know if it's we find crime so fascinating. I think we find the pursuit of the bad people fascinating. We want to know A) could we solve something like this? And B) we want to ride with someone who's working against the odds and on a noble pursuit. I mean, there's nothing more important than finding the person who took another life. And I think that's a big attraction for people who read these kind of books. And I'm among them. You know, I wanted to write these because I like reading them. And that has always been the draw for me.
SIMON: Michael Connelly, thanks very much.
CONNELLY: Thank you.
SIMON: Michael Connelly, the novelist. Some of the real life crime stories that he covered have been collected in his new book, Crime Beat. And you can find excerpts from that book on our website, npr.org.