Michael Connelly is as good as it gets when it comes to telling tales about lawyers and policemen engaged in the dark but heroic act of combatting what we like to think of as the evil in our midst. The Drop, Connelly’s latest, does not disappoint. Harry Bosch, the intrepid and now aging detective confronting mandatory retirement from the Los Angeles Police Department still seeks justice. And he still gets his man.
Two parallel tracks define the book’s plot. Bosch is assigned to a cold case unit investigating old, unsolved murder with new forensic technology. When the DNA on a woman murdered decades ago matches that of a man convicted of sex offenses, it looks as though the murder is about to be solved. But at the time of the murder, the suspect was only eight years old. That would be precocious even by the big-city standards. Bosch needs to dig to find the real killer.
The investigation is sidetracked, however, when the son of a prominent member of the Board of Police Commissioners is found dead outside a city hotel. DId this young man, a lawyer and influence-peddler at City Hall, jump to his death, or was it murder? Powerful evidence leads Bosch to suspect murder at the hands of a former cop removed from the force for excessive zeal in the application of choke holds.
And did I mention that along the way Bosch finds respite from his loneliness with a psychologist who treats sex offenders?
This is what is called a police procedural, one of Connelly’s specialties. A former crime reporter, he’s now walked Bosch through a series of books that illustrate how police officers do their jobs. He tells us a little about forced confessions and the sort of deniable threats conveyed when there are no witnesses. He shows us how to “jump a warrant,” that is, how to search a location before a warrant arrives. The suggestion, of course, is that these routine violations of the law do not matter so long as it helps the police catch bad guys. Bosch views the rule of law as merely instrumental but retains a personal sense of decency, even honor.
If you want to catch a look at the politics of law enforcement, Connelly is your man. What you will learn ought not to surprise you: Like the rest of us, police have jobs to do. The good ones stick to the rules most of the time. The less scrupulous break the rules all the time. There are no good men, there are just folks who try harder than others.
But that is the less interesting half of The Drop.
Connelly also writes about the world of lawyers. His series on the exploits of Michael Haller, most recently portrayed in The Fifth Witness, is more appealing to me. I suspect that is because, like Haller, I make my living defending people accused of breaking the law. Connelly writes about lawyers as well as anyone. I read him on lawyers with because it is fun. I read his police procedurals, on the other hand, and I read about the exploits of men like Harry Bosch, because I want to know what it looks like to see lawmen break the law in the name of justice.
Haller makes no appearance in The Drop, but his ex-wife does. She’s a prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Office assigned to bring the killer arrested at the book’s end to justice. If Connelly is as good as I think he is, then Haller will be retained to represent this killer, and he will probe the law’s dark side in an effort to free a monster.
Which brings me, finally, the most interesting thing about The Drop; it s a question, really. Why are we so captivated by fictional accounts of murder and sexual sadism?
The Drop was moving along at a nice pace when suddenly disturbing evidence of a sexual sadist emerged as if from nowhere. The violence and the description of the evidence seized was optional and unnecessary to the plot. The book could have concluded without it, and sold about as well. But there it is, about the time one looks for a conclusion: Evidence that makes Hannibal Lechter look like an amateur. It serves as a hook, really, an invitation to return for more in the next book.
We criminalize depiction of children engaged in sex acts and call it child pornography. We justify these prosecutions by saying that destroying the market for this material keeps children safe. Yet at the same time, there are big entertainment dollars to be made depicting the acts of sexual sadism so long as the victims are adult. I am surprised some enterprising Puritan hasn’t sought to ban the latter: It would seem that we might make the world safer if we eliminated the entertainment value of murder, too.
I came to the end of The Drop both repulsed and captivated by the evidence discovered about the killer. I read with a guilty sort of pleasure. I deplored what the killer did, but I wanted to see how he did it. Is the key to the writing of a good thriller this taming of evil, this savoring of the forbidden?
In the real world work of cops and lawyers, The Drop would have ended on a mundane note. A man would have been accused of killing for ordinary reasons of rage and hatred. But Connelly delivers more than necessary. He gives us a monster when a mere thug would do. Why? We pray to be delivered from evil, yet embrace the evil we fear with every chance we get.
There’s some larger truth at work here that Connelly does not explain. Perhaps he doesn’t want to. It’s his trade secret, a dark alchemy that has made him rich, and keeps the rest of us eagerly reading about dark acts we deplore but enjoy beholding.
Michael Connelly, it appears, has the drop on our fascination with evil.