Real People Inhabit Michael Connelly's Fictional L.A.
Last of a four-part series.
'Pieces of Grace'
Connelly Describes the City's 'Hidden Grace Notes'
The Million Dollar Theater
Connelly Discusses the Role of the Theater in His Books
"The Million Dollar Theater was built in a time when the movie business showed itself off in magnificent theater palaces that lined Broadway in downtown. But it had been decades since a first run film had been projected on a screen there. Its ornate façade had been covered by a lighted marquee that for a time announced religious revivals instead of movies. Now the theater waited unused for renovation and redemption while above it a once grand office building was twelve stories of mid-grade office space and residential lofts." -- from The Overlook (2007) by Michael Connelly
The Bradbury Building
Connelly says the Bradbury Building is the Most Beautiful in L.A.
"The Bradbury was the dusty jewel of downtown. Built more than a century before, its beauty was old but still brighter and more enduring than any of the glass-and-marble towers that dwarfed it like a phalanx of brutish guards surrounding a beautiful child. Its ornate lines and glazed tile surfaces had withstood the betrayal of both man and nature. It had survived earthquakes and riots, periods of abandonment and decay, and a city that often didn't bother to safeguard what little culture and roots it had. Bosch believed there wasn't a more beautiful structure in the city — despite the reasons he had been inside it over the years." — from Angels Flight (1999) by Michael Connelly
'The Saint of Skid Row'
Connelly on the Anthony Quinn Mural
"Bosch was still staring at the mural. He liked it, even though he had a hard time seeing Anthony Quinn as a Christ-like figure. But the mural seemed to capture something about the man, a raw masculine and emotional power. Bosch stepped closer to the window and looked down. He saw the forms of two homeless people sleeping under blankets of newspapers in the parking lot beneath the mural. Anthony Quinn's arms were outstretched over them. Bosch nodded. The mural was one of the little things that made him like downtown so much. Just like the Bradbury and Angels Flight. Little pieces of grace were everywhere if you looked." -- from Angels Flight
Connelly's 'Crime Beat'
Before Michael Connelly spun fiction about crime, he wrote about the real thing as a journalist. Some of those stories are collected in a 2006 nonfiction title from Connelly, Crime Beat.
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Before Michael Connelly was a best-selling mystery novelist, he was a beat reporter covering crime for the Los Angeles Times. His protagonist, Harry Bosch, travels through L.A. as a homicide detective. Mandalit del Barco spent a day with Connelly as he toured the City of Angels the way he and Harry Bosch see it.
Michael Connelly has no need for the GPS device on the SUV he's driving from Venice Beach to downtown; he knows these streets and freeways well. The windshield is his lens on L.A.
"To use a cop term, it's a suitcase city. It's a transient place. People come from all over to be here," he says on the 10 Freeway. "And there's an element of agitation. Am I safe? The car is the safety zone. And you can extend that and say that's part of the difficulties in the city is that we're able to remain compartmentalized and separate, because we're all driving around by ourselves in our cars."
For a decade, Connelly prowled the city as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
"My editor told me, 'You're now in a city that's a sunny place for shady people,'" he says, during a stop at Bird's, an eatery on Franklin Avenue. "He said, 'In between the sun and the shade are good stories.'"
During his day job, Connelly was always taking mental notes about the locations and characters he would fictionalize. Eighteen novels later, he's still exploring the world of the Los Angeles Police Department.
In Hollywood, Connelly joins up with a buddy, patrol Sgt. McDonald, who appears every once in a while in his novels. They drive through the famous Sunset Boulevards in a black-and-white squad car. Near the on-ramp to the 101 Freeway, they're flagged down by a frantic man who has just been mugged.
The victim is a 54-year-old immigrant from Budapest. His face is bloodied, and his eyeglasses are broken.
Connelly watches the cops who arrive on the scene to take the victim's report, and the paramedics who bandage his head.
"The take on this crime is $30," he notes. "Just think about the impact on his life, physically, mentally and financially. And in the overall record of this city, it's a nothing crime. But see how significant it is."
It's not as grim as the crimes Connelly's main character investigates. That would be Hieronymus Bosch ... Harry Bosch.
"He's an outsider with an insider's job. He's got a badge," Connelly says. He based Bosch on Raymond Chandler's character Phillip Marlowe, a 1940s private eye. Bosch is a relentless, modern-day homicide detective with the LAPD.
"You might not like his tactics, or all his tactics, you might not like his personality. There may not be a lot you don't like about him," Connelly says, "but you would respect how he works to the point that if it were your loved one on the slab down at the morgue, the first name that would come to mind in terms of an investigator would be Harry Bosch."
Bosch works in the homicide division at the Hollywood station, which has its own sidewalk stars and movie posters in the lobby. Today, Connelly pays a visit and meets the new captain, Thomas Brascia.
"I've read every book you've ever written, every Harry Bosch book," Brascia tells Connelly. "I'm an ex-homicide cop. I'm living vicariously through Harry Bosch."
There have been so many movies and TV shows and books about the L.A. cops, but Brascia says Connelly's descriptions of the bustling precinct, the seedy neighborhoods, the at times thrilling and tedious police work are dead-on.
"You can tell Michael's been here," Brascia says. "He's done his homework."
Connelly gets the same reaction at the Criminal Courts building downtown. A few floors up from where music producer Phil Spector is being tried, the author sits in on a random case. The accused wears an orange prison jumpsuit, writing notes to her lawyer.
"The defendant in this case is actually a defense attorney," Connelly whispers during the proceeding. "It's just happenstance that I'm writing about a defense attorney and here's one being sent to prison."
Connelly's now working on a new novel, starring Bosch and criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller, who operates out of the back seat of his Lincoln Town Car. When Judge Judy Champagne calls for a recess, she asks Connelly to step into her chambers, and greets him warmly with a hug.
Connelly hands her a manuscript of his current caper.
"Once again, I want Judge Champagne to make a cameo in the book I'm writing," he says.
Connelly asks her to be brutally honest about whether he got all the legal work right. Champagne seems flattered that he wants to base another character on her, and she's impressed by Connelly's relentless fact checking.
"You know, Michael really, really works hard to get it accurate, which all the cops and the judges and the lawyers who are great fans love about it," she says. "And the characters are flawed. They're just the way we are. I mean, Harry's been my favorite, but he's flawed! Sometimes I think, 'Harry, don't do that! This is going to get you in trouble.'"
Champagne's late husband, Roy, was Connelly's friend. And the writer says he based much of Bosch's character on him. The judge was once a prosecutor, and her husband was a cop who brought her cases.
Connelly used that in a book with the line, "I hook 'em and you cook 'em."
After court, Connelly takes a walk through the bustling downtown to some of the places he and Bosch really love. The grandiose old Million Dollar movie palace, where Connelly set his fictional secret FBI unit. On his way to the Angel's Flight trolley, he visits the Grand Central Market, where Bosch and the police staged a spectacular shootout with a bad guy hiding behind the meat counter.
Then he heads to the ornate Bradbury Building, a favorite Hollywood location with wrought iron railings and a hand-crank elevator.
"This, by far, most beautiful building in L.A.," Connelly says. "With Harry, there's a poignant contradiction. In the books, he comes here to contemplate what's beautiful about the city. Unfortunately, his enemies are here. The Internal Affairs department of the LAPD."
The maverick Harry Bosch and his creator, Connelly, often come up with clues and solve their cases while on the road, listening to jazz. Both are contemplative about the city they love.
"It's the randomness of this place," Connelly muses. "Anything could happen — good and bad — so quickly. People become overnight famous in this place for good things, and often for horrible things."
Listening to Bosch's theme song, Frank Morgan's "Lullaby," on the CD, Connelly winds down his day with a stop at the Hollywood Lake, the scene of several crimes in his novels, The Overlook and The Black Echo.
Then he heads to Mulholland Drive, and up to where Bosch's fictional house was red-tagged after an earthquake. From this vantage point high in the Hollywood Hills, Connelly looks out over the canyon to the endless ribbon of red lights on the freeway.
"It's a city that's beautiful and damaged, that has so much that appears going for it, but falls short," he says. "Just like a person — a flawed character."
This is Michael Connelly's Los Angeles: Beautiful and damaged, with moments of hidden grace.
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The Black Echo
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The Lincoln Lawyer
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The Black Ice
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Excerpt: 'The Black Ice'
Sleep was not a possibility. Bosch knew this. He stood on the porch looking down on the carpet of lights and let the chill air harden his skin and his resolve. For the first time in months he felt invigorated. He was in the hunt again. He let everything about the cases pass through his mind and made a mental list of people he had to see and things he had to do.
On top was Lucius Porter, the broken-down detective whose pullout was too timely, too coincidental to be coincidental. Harry realized he was becoming angry just thinking about Porter. And embarrassed. Embarrassed at having stuck his neck out for him with Pounds.
He went to his notebook and then dialed Porter's number one more time. He was not expecting an answer and he wasn't disappointed. Porter had at least been reliable in that respect. He checked the address he had written down earlier and headed out.
Driving down out of the hills he did not pass another car until he reached Cahuenga. He headed north and got on the Hollywood Freeway at Barham. The freeway was crowded but not so that traffic was slow. The cars moved northward at a steady clip, a sleekly moving ribbon of lights. Out over Studio City, Bosch could see a police helicopter circling, a shaft of white light cast downward on a crime scene somewhere. It almost seemed as if the beam was a leash that held the circling craft from flying high and away.
He loved the city most at night. The night hid many of the sorrows. It silenced the city yet brought deep undercurrents to the surface. It was in this dark slipstream that he believed he moved most freely. Behind the cover of shadows. Like a rider in a limousine, he looked out but no one looked in.
There was a random feel to the dark, the quirkiness of chance played out in the blue neon night. So many ways to live. And to die. You could be riding in the back of a studio's black limo, or just as easily the back of the coroner's blue van. The sound of applause was the same as the buzz of a bullet spinning past your ear in the dark. That randomness. That was L.A.
There was flash fire and flash flood, earthquake, mudslide. There was the drive-by shooter and the crack-stoked burglar. The drunk driver and the always curving road ahead. There were killer cops and cop killers. There was the husband of the woman you were sleeping with. And there was the woman. At any moment on any night there were people being raped, violated, maimed. Murdered and loved. There was always a baby at his mother's breast. And, sometimes, a baby alone in a dumpster.
From The Black Ice Copyright 1993 by Michael Connelly.
Excerpt: 'Crime Beat'
Introduction: Watching the Detectives
Moments. It all comes down to moments. I have been watching the detectives for more than thirty years. It all started because of a single moment. The best things that I have seen and taken into my imagination and then seeded into my fiction came to me in moments. Sometimes I am haunted by the what ifs. What if I hadn't looked out my car window that night when I was sixteen? What if I hadn't seen the detective take off his glasses? What if I had gone to L.A. for the first time a day later, or I hadn't answered the phone the time my editor called me to send me up the hill to check out a murder?
Let me try to explain. Let me try and tell you about a few of these moments.
When I was sixteen years old I worked as a night dishwasher in a hotel restaurant on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The place stayed open late and the pots and pans that were used to cook in all day had to be soaked, scrubbed and cleaned. I often didn't get out of that place until late.
One night I was driving my Volkswagen Beetle home from work. The streets were almost deserted. I came to a red light and stopped the car. I was tired and just wanted to get home. There were no other cars at the intersection and no cars coming. Thinking about running the light, I checked both ways for cops and when I looked to my left I saw something.
A man was running. He was on the sidewalk, running full speed toward the beach, in the direction I had just come from. He was big and bearded with bushy hair down to his shoulders. He wasn't a jogger. He was running either to or from something. He wore blue jeans and a lumberjack shirt. He was wearing boots, not running shoes. Forgetting about the traffic light, I watched the man and saw him start to peel off his shirt as he ran, revealing a printed T-shirt underneath. He pulled the outer shirt off and then bundled it around something he had been clutching in his hand. Barely breaking his stride, he shoved the shirt into the interior branches of a hedge next to the sidewalk and then kept going.
I made a U-turn when the light changed. The running man was a few blocks ahead of me. I drove slowly, following and watching him. I saw him duck into the doorway of a bar called The Parrot. It was a bar I was familiar with. Not because I had ever been inside — I was too young. It was familiar because on numerous occasions I had noticed the line of motorcycles parked in front of it. I had seen the big men going in to do their drinking there. It was a place I was wary of.
I drove by The Parrot and made another U-turn. I went back to the hedge and parked my bug. I looked around, then quickly got out. At the hedge I stuck my hand into the branches and retrieved the bundled shirt. It felt heavy in my hands. I unwrapped it. There in the shirt was a gun.
A charge of fear and adrenaline went through me. I quickly rewrapped the gun and put it back in its place. I ran to my car and I drove away.
But then I stopped at a phone booth. When I reached my father and told him what I had just seen and done and discovered, he told me to come pick him up. He said we were going to call the police and go back to the hedge.
Fifteen minutes later my father and I were at the hedge when police cars, with blue lights flashing from their roofs, pulled up. I told the officers what I had seen and what I had done. I led them to the gun. They told me there had been a robbery nearby. The victim had been shot in the head. They said the running man sounded like the guy they were looking for.
I spent the next four hours in the detective bureau. I was interviewed and reinterviewed by detectives, one in particular who was gruff and had a no-nonsense air about him. He told me that the victim might not make it, that I might end up being the only witness. Because of my description of the running man, several men with long hair, beards and printed T-shirts were pulled out of The Parrot and taken to the police department to stand in suspect lineups. I was the one looking through the one-way glass at them. I was the only witness. I had to pick the shooter.
There was only one problem. They didn't have the guy. It had been dark out but the street was lighted. I clearly saw the man who stashed the gun and knew they didn't have him. Sometime between when I saw him duck into The Parrot and when the police came to round up patrons fitting my description, the shooter had slipped away.
This did not sit well with the detectives. They believed they had the guy. They believed that I was simply too scared or intimidated to make the ID. I could not convince them and after going back and forth with the gruff detective for what seemed like hours it ended badly. My father demanded my release and I left the department with that detective thinking I had been too afraid to step up. I knew he was wrong but it didn't make me feel any better. Although I had been honest, I knew I had let him down.
I started reading the newspaper after that night. Religiously. At first it was to look for stories about the shooting. The victim survived, but I never heard from the detectives again and I wondered what had happened to the case. Was the shooter ever identified? Was he ever caught? I also became fascinated with the crime stories and the detectives working the cases. South Florida was a strange place. A torrent of drug money was flooding the coast. Fast boats and cars. Smugglers were moving into the best neighborhoods. Crimes of violence happened everywhere at any time. There seemed to always be a lot of crime stories to read.
I got hooked. Soon I was reading true-crime books and then crime novels. In the years that followed I discovered the works of Joseph Wambaugh and Raymond Chandler. And eventually I decided I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to work for a newspaper on the crime beat. I wanted to watch and learn from the detectives and then one day write about them in novels. All because of a moment, all because I had looked out my window.