Fiction Review

“Blood Work” by Michael Connelly

Connelly, Michael. Blood Work (1998).  Little Brown, 391 pages, $23.95 hardcover   ISBN 0 316 15399 0     

Taking a break from LAPD detective Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly introduces a new character, former FBI agent Terry McCaleb. We first meet McCaleb two months after his heart transplant surgery, living in a Los Angeles marina on a boat, inherited from his father, that’s he’s refurbishing. When a woman, Graciela Rivers, comes to ask him to look into the murder of her sister, Gloria Torres, because the police don’t seem to be investigating the case very diligently, McCaleb politely declines. But Graciela is persistent, and when McCaleb continues to demur, she plays her trump card: she tells McCaleb that he has Gloria’s heart.

Now that the case is personal, McCaleb reluctantly agrees to look into it, although he expects to find that the police are doing the best they can and to leave it at that. But when he looks, he notices things that the police apparently didn’t notice, and soon he finds two more unsolved murders that might be related to Gloria’s. So McCaleb persists, until he finds out that the case is even more personal than either Graciela or he could have imagined.

In the acknowledgments at the end of the novel, Connelly says that the story “was inspired by conversations with my friend Terry Hansen, who received a heart transplant on Valentine’s Day 1993.” The movie version of Blood Work, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, came out in 2002.

© 2002 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“The Concrete Blonde” by Michael Connelly

Connelly, Michael. The Concrete Blonde (1994).   St. Martin’s, 397 pages, $5.99 mass market paperback.   ISBN 0 312 95500 6     

Four years earlier, during the hunt for the serial killer known as the Dollmaker, LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch had followed a lead to a small apartment, where he confronted and killed Norman Church. The contents of the apartment linked Church to nine of the eleven murders under investigation, and he was identified as the Dollmaker. Bosch was credited with catching the Dollmaker, although, because he had not followed proper procedure by going into the apartment alone, he was demoted with a transfer from the elite robbery and homicide division to Hollywood homicide.

The Concrete Blonde opens four years after the death of Norman Church. Church’s widow is suing Bosch and the Los Angeles Police Department in civil court for the use of excessive force in the death of her husband. On the opening day of Bosch’s trial, the police department receives a note – similar to the notes the Dollmaker used to leave – directing them to a body under the floor of a burned-out building. Investigators find the corpse of a blonde woman entombed in the concrete and, by making casts of her fingerprints and face, are able to identify her. But this woman disappeared only two years earlier – in other words, two years after Bosch supposedly killed the Dollmaker. Could Bosch have killed the wrong man? Or did the Dollmaker have an accomplice who is now taking over? Or could there be a copycat killer at work? Whoever killed the blonde in the concrete had intimate knowledge of the investigation, including knowledge of some information that was never released to the public.

Because Bosch has to be in court all day, he cannot participate fully in the investigation of the murder of the concrete blonde. But he works on the case every day after court, feeling a personal stake in the outcome. But every case is personal for Bosch; as he watches his partner, Jerry Edgar, at work, Bosch thinks, “He never seemed to understand that the homicide squad wasn’t a job. It was a mission. As surely as murder was an art for some who committed it, homicide investigation was an art for those on the mission. And it chose you, you didn’t choose it” (pp. 43-44). Trying to find the relationship between this new case and the Dollmaker murders, Bosch examines the list of the Dollmaker’s victims: “Reading the names and the dates of the deaths. Looking at the faces. All of them lost angels in the city of night” (p. 152).

Connelly continues the characterization of Bosch as intensely driven and intensely private. To ground himself in reality, Bosch takes comfort in the baseball statistics published in the paper:  “He somehow found the columns of numbers and percentages comforting. They were clear and concise, an absolute order in a disordered world. Having knowledge of who had hit the most home runs for the Dodgers made him feel that he was still connected in some way to the city, and to his life (p. 7).”

Concrete Blonde takes place about a year after the events in The Black Ice. Bosch and Sylvia Moore, widow of Cal Moore, whose death Bosch investigated in that novel, have been dating for that long. But Sylvia, concerned that Bosch is unable to reveal much of himself to her, is unsure about continuing the relationship. The civil trial and the concrete blonde investigation raise both personal and professional issues that Bosch will have to learn to deal with.

© 2002 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“The Black Ice” by Michael Connelly

Connelly, Michael. The Black Ice (1993). 
St. Martin’s, 368 pages, $6.99 mass market paperback  
ISBN 0 312 95281 3

It’s Christmas Day, and L.A. homicide detective Harry Bosch is on call. When he hears a broadcast for a homicide on the police scanner, he wonders why he, the on-call detective, hasn’t been notified. Bosch soon learns that the apparent victim is another police detective, Calexico Moore, whom Bosch knew slightly and who has been missing for several days. Bosch also soon learns that he’s purposely being squeezed out of the investigation loop – a big mistake on the part of his superiors.

Harry’s boss should know that telling Harry not to investigate a case is the surest way to get Harry involved. Moore’s beat was illegal drugs, and Harry has just been handed the investigation into the death of a suspected drug dealer. Deciding that there’s a possible link between the drug dealer’s death and Cal Moore’s, Harry begins looking into the Moore case as well.

To investigate Cal Moore’s death, Bosch must analyze the other man’s life. In many ways Moore’s childhood paralleled Bosch’s own. The deeper Bosch penetrates into Moore’s history, the more he also has to confront his own past. Bosch’s mother, a prostitute, “had once told him he was the namesake of an artist whose work she admired. She said the painter’s five hundred year old paintings were apt portraits of present L.A., a nightmarish landscape of predators and victims” (p. 212).

Throughout the Bosch series Michael Connelly brings this “nightmarish landscape of predators and victims” to life. What makes this series so effective is the sense that all of this matters deeply, that every murder case Harry confronts tilts the universe slightly on its axis. Solving the case may provide some justice, but it can never completely undo the damage. It’s as if each murder tilts the universe two degrees off center, but each resolution can only correct the situation by one degree. 

Attempting to set the universe back aright is a personal mission for Harry Bosch, and he’ll do whatever he thinks the job requires. This is why the LAPD brass don’t want Bosch involved in cases – like Cal Moore’s death – that they want to keep quiet. As Assistantt Chief Irving tells Harry, “You don’t play for the team. You play for yourself” (p. 360). Given the two-steps-backward-for-every-one-step-forward nature of Bosch’s mission, readers of Connelly’s series have to wonder how long Bosch can keep at it before the job breaks him.

© 2002 by Mary Daniels Brown

List Year's Best

The Best Books I Read in 2001

Listed alphabetically by author

Bragg, Rick. All Over But the Shoutin’

Haruf, Kent. Plainsong

Irving, John. The World According to Garp

Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn

Liss, David. A Conspiracy of Paper

Oates, Joyce Carol. Blonde

Oates, Joyce Carol. We Were the Mulvaneys

Schwarz, Christina. Drowning Ruth

Shreve, Anita. Strange Fits of Passion

Vreeland, Susan. Girl in Hyacinth Blue

Honorable Mention

Chevalier, Tracy. Girl with a Pearl Earring

Dubus III, Andre. House of Sand and Fog

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God

Fiction Review

“The Echo” by Minette Walters

Walters, Minette. The Echo (1997)  
Penguin Putnam, 351 pages, $6.99 paperback 
ISBN 0 515 12256 4

When a homeless man known as Billy Blake dies of malnutrition in the garage of an expensive home in London, police are unable to discover anything about the man’s true identity. Several months later journalist Michael Deacon is sent by his editor to interview the wealthy widow in whose garage Billy chose to die. As Deacon digs deeper, he finds echoes of both his own life and the widow’s life in the story of Billy Blake. Like Walters’s earlier novels, The Echo illustrates that appearances can be deceiving if people are unwilling to look below the surface.

I found this novel to be much less compelling than the earlier ones. The plot is way too convoluted and contrived, and the relationships between the characters and the truths the novel reveals are too tenuous to be convincing.

© 2001 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“The Scold’s Bridle” by Minette Walters

Walters, Minette. The Scold’s Bridle (1994)  
St. Martin’s, 365 pages, $5.99  paperback  
ISBN 0 312 95612 6


Nobody is very concerned when the body of Mathilda Gillespie, a venomous old woman, is discovered in her bathtub. Mathilda apparently has committed suicide by slitting her wrists while wearing her scold’s bridle, an ancient iron instrument that fit around the head and into the mouth to immobilize the tongue and therefore bridle the speech of a scold—a nagging, cantankerous woman. Mathilda used the scold’s bridle, which had been in her family for generations, as a room decoration.

But an inquest determines that Mathilda’s death was murder, not suicide. Both Matilda’s daughter, the strikingly beautiful Joanna, and Joanna’s daughter, Ruth, are suspects; the three generations of women apparently hated each other and argued constantly. But when Mathilda’s will is read, the prime suspect becomes the old woman’s physician, Dr. Sarah Blakeney, to whom Mathilda leaves her entire estate. The only way that Blakeney, who had known Mathilda for only a year, can prove her innocence is by discovering who the real murderer is.

© 2001 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“The Sculptress” by Minette Walters

Walters, Minette. The Sculptress (1993)  
St. Martin’s, 308 pages, $5.99 paperback  
ISBN 0 312 95361 5

Rosalind Leigh is a blocked writer given an ultimatum by her publisher: write a book about a sensational murder that occurred several years earlier or be dropped from the publisher’s list.  Roz grudgingly accepts the assignment to interview Olive Martin, a woman in prison for the murder of her mother and sister. Olive is called “the sculptress” because she admitted to hacking her mother and sister to death, then trying to reassemble the severed body parts; in prison Olive also uses wax candles and bits of clay to sculpt dolls that she dresses to look like the people in her life.

Olive Martin is an obese, ugly woman whom Roz finds innately repulsive. But as Roz begins to talk with Olive and to interview other people about the crime to which Olive has confessed, she begins to think that Olive may be innocent. If Olive didn’t kill her own mother and sister, who did? And why would Olive confess to a crime that she didn’t commit?

© 2001 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“The Ice House” by Minette Walters

Walters, Minette. The Ice House (1992)  
St. Martin’s, 301 pages, $5.99  paperback  
ISBN 0 312 95142 6


When a decomposing body is discovered in the ice house on a British estate, two cynical detectives arrive to investigate. They’re certain that the body must be that of the husband of the household, who disappeared 10 years earlier. Furthermore, they wonder, along with all the residents of the town, why the missing man’s wife and two female companions—all women approaching middle age—live together in seclusion in the house. As they dig more deeply into the problem of the body in the ice house, they discover that things may not be as they seem. The reader also discovers that appearances can be deceiving.

What makes Walters such a popular writer is her ability to probe the psychological complexities of her characters at the same time that she creates spellbinding plots to hold readers’ interest while allowing the characters to reveal themselves. Time after time a Walters novel reveals that things are not always as they seem and that, by making and acting upon assumptions, we often miss the truth.

© 2001 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“P” Is for Peril by Sue Grafton

Grafton,Sue. “P” Is for Peril (2001)  
Putnam, 352 pages, $26.95 hardcover 
ISBN 0399147195

Dr. Dowan Purcell has been missing for nine weeks by the time his ex-wife, Fiona, hires Kinsey to find him. The 69-year-old doctor, a respected member of the local medical community, is director of a nursing home. He’s now married to a much younger wife, Crystal, with whom he has a 2-year-old son. Fiona thinks Purcell might have deliberately disappeared. Crystal thinks he must be dead. Kinsey doesn’t think she’ll find out much that the cops haven’t already discovered in nine weeks, but she agrees to look into the disappearance despite her instinctive dislike of the austere Fiona.

Kinsey soon learns that Dr. Purcell’s nursing home is being investigated for Medicare fraud. But beyond this there doesn’t seem to be much information about the doctor. In the meantime, Kinsey looks for new office space to rent and is excited to find what she thinks is the perfect place.

Sue Grafton is somewhat off in her latest alphabet mystery. The first problem is the pacing. Kinsey spends an awful lot of time learning virtually nothing about Purcell’s disappearance; I kept waiting for something—anything—to happen. 

A second problem is the subplot of Kinsey’s relationship with the landlords of her newly rented office space. Grafton usually makes her subplots relate somehow to the main plot, but there’s no such connection between the two elements in “P” Is for Peril. And the subplot is never adequately resolved. (After the scene in the Hevner garage, would one of the brothers simply get into his car and drive off without doing anything about Kinsey?) Further, the subplot probably would have made a more interesting main plot than the story of Dr. Purcell turns out to be.

The third problem with this novel is its dénouement, which reveals the killer but fails to answer a lot of questions about the crime. Exactly how was the murder committed? Did one of the minor characters help out, as certain incidents suggest? Also, the apparent motivation for the crime comes out of nowhere and, without adequate preparation, is not at all convincing. Sue Grafton usually ties all the story’s loose ends up in a way that explains them all and brings closure to the various characters and events. But in this novel she simply stops.

One challenge of writing a continuing series is adding the nuances necessary to keep the recurrent character fresh for readers. At the end of “O” Is for Outlaw Grafton introduced a kinder, gentler Kinsey, but there is no trace of that persona in this next installment. Nonetheless, devotees of Kinsey Millhone will be glad of another chance to spend some time with her.

© 2001 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Angels Flight” by Michael Connelly

Connelly, Michael. Angels Flight (1999)  
Little, Brown, 393 pages, $25.00 hardcover  
ISBN 0 316 15219 6

Howard Elias, an attorney well known around the LAPD for bringing charges of police brutality, is found murdered in Angels Flight, a small two-car train that travels up and down a hill in Los Angeles. The murder investigation falls to Harry Bosch, even though Angels Flight is not located in his normal beat, because Elias was due to start a trial the following week against some of the regular detectives on this beat. 

Dead with Elias in the Angels Flight car is Catalina Perez. “He [Bosch] studied Catalina Perez the way someone might study a sculpture in a museum. There was no feeling for the object in front of him as human. He was studying details, gaining impressions” (33). However, this picture of the cold, unfeeling detective contrasts with the other, the personal, Bosch, who must continue the murder investigation against the backdrop of the dissolution of his marriage.

© 2001 by Mary Daniels Brown