Harry Bosch is back on the case, as fear overwhelms Los Angeles

The Baltimore Sun

The Overlook

By Michael Connelly

Little, Brown / 230 pages / $21.99

The young drifter, barely out of his teens, sits sweating in an interview room at the LAPD's Parker Center. His scant belongings have already been searched: some clothing, a map to the stars' homes, a book by Charles Dickens. He's been called in as a witness to an execution-style murder on an overlook above Mulholland Dam. The door opens.

"Are you my lawyer?" Jesse Mitford asks the man who takes a seat across from him.

"No, Jesse, I'm your detective. My name's Harry Bosch."

The Overlook is the 13th novel by Michael Connelly to star Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch, and by now, he really is our detective. Read one in the series and you love the guy. Read several and you become the guy. Whatever else you do all day, when you're immersed in these books, you find yourself trying a little detective work on the side, reading people the way Bosch reads a murder suspect, looking for the lie, the tell, the clues, the subtext.

Connelly has written Bosch novels in the first and third person; he's bounced the rogue cop to different divisions of the Los Angeles Police Department and even put him to work as a private detective. The author has red-tagged Bosch's hillside house after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, bedeviled him with Vietnam flashbacks, pitted him against adversaries on and off the force, partnered him with memorable cops, doomed his love affairs, wrecked his marriage and given him a daughter he didn't know he had.

Bosch is now 56 and feeling it. He's back at the LAPD in a division that takes high-profile cases, and he's juiced for the job, his passion for solving murders still strong. "Everybody counts or nobody counts" echoes through the novels as his golden rule. Under the glass top of his desk, instead of family photos, are pictures of victims whose killers he hasn't yet found.

The other great literary creation in these novels is Connelly's Los Angeles, a poisoned garden he's mapped as a physical and psychological landscape, both scrupulously real. Into the daily flow of the city's boulevards, freeways and public throngs he blends images - the tunnel, the precipice, the river, the coyote, the tower - that glimmer like hallucinations in a dreamscape by Edgar Allan Poe.

The Overlook takes place over a 12-hour period. As Bosch notes, most of this case's physical features might fit on one page of a Thomas Guide, ranging from the neighborhood above Mulholland Dam, a Silver Lake recreation center, to a Hollywood hotel and police headquarters downtown. The psychic topography, though, is more sweeping.

Fear - corrosive, obfuscating and exploitative - clenches this Los Angeles, a fear cast by the long shadows of Sept. 11 that sends bureaucrats scuttling like bugs toward obvious and often wrong conclusions. It propels Bosch, the FBI and local Homeland Security folks to the Mulholland overlook, where medical physicist Stanley Kent is found dead with two neat shots in the back of his head.

Kent's job involved transporting cesium 137, a radioactive isotope, between the "hot labs" of various hospitals for the treatment of cervical and uterine cancer. In the wrong hands, it can also be used to make a dirty bomb. Bosch's quick trip to a women's clinic confirms that shortly before he died, Kent removed 32 tubes of cesium from the hot lab after receiving an e-mail on his BlackBerry containing a photo of his wife, naked and hogtied on their bed, and a demand that he bring the cesium to the overlook or she'd be killed.

When Bosch and Rachel Walling - an FBI agent with whom he's had previous emotional and professional entanglements - enter Kent's house, they find his wife still alive but no cesium. Their only other lead is the drifter Mitford, who'd been lurking near the overlook around a house he'd hoped was Madonna's when he heard the gunfire that killed Kent, along with a shout that sounded like "Allah."

What follows is a suspenseful power grab, as agents of the FBI, eager to bolster the government's approval ratings with a successful anti-terrorism coup, try to wrest the case from local forces, sending choppers filled with radiological attack teams to chase down the missing cesium.

The cast widens to include the chief of police, whom Bosch corners in a Los Feliz doughnut shop in an appeal for help, and a U.S.-baiting media gadfly named Ramin Samir, on whom the oafish local Homeland Security commander is eager to pin the blame.

In the meantime, Bosch, uninterested in political opportunism and dependent on his young partner, Ignacio Ferras, to help him work a BlackBerry, fights to hang on to his old-school deductive powers. "Find the killers, you find the cesium," he reasons.

Because The Overlook has an even more uncluttered plot than do Connelly's usual elegantly constructed narratives, every detail counts. It's no offhand gesture that the book in Mitford's backpack is Dickens' Bleak House. That novel included in its large cast of characters one of the first detectives in English fiction, Mr. Bucket. (Bleak House appeared in monthly installments in 1852-1853, just as The Overlook was a recent 16-part serial in The New York Times Magazine. Connelly has since made key changes and additions.) Dickens gave us a London mired in a fog of bureaucratic incompetence and scary new technology (railroads) but hinted at redemption in small compassionate acts: Everybody counted or nobody counted.

It's clear why one of Connelly's favorite symbols is the echo. He never delivers the latest news of Los Angeles life without also supplying context, from his own previous books and from other novels. If Bosch is our detective, Connelly is our laureate, proving again that popular fiction at its best, as in a crafty little entertainment like The Overlook, is also literature.

Donna Rifkind, a Los Angeles-based reviewer, was a finalist for this year's National Book Critics Circle's Balakian Award for excellence. She wrote a version of this review for the Los Angeles Times.

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