Dennis Lehane Essay

The Lost Coyote: Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch Novels
By Dennis Lehane

We thought we’d share this piece by award winning and bestselling author Dennis Lehane. Dennis was asked by the Italian newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera, to write an article about Harry Bosch. Please enjoy.

In a fair amount of literary criticism, the favorite son of American crime fiction is Raymond Chandler, while the father role falls to Dashiell Hammett, the acknowledged progenitor of hard-boiled fiction. Hammett, Chandler himself said, “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley.” Prior to that, the classic English mysteries had presented murder as a rather tidy affair, an intellectual parlor game to be played by people who somehow managed never to be dirtied by it. But Hammett, who eschewed the elegiac for the grimy, put the filth and blood back into murder. And this has always presented a problem for critics who don’t want to be caught admiring someone who forgets to wash for dinner.

So, if Hammett was the bedrock of American noir, Chandler was its flowering. He gave the genre its first mature philosophical musings; he fashioned a code of ethics, embodied by Philip Marlowe, that has been emulated ever since; he fixed the idea of a detective tied to only two things—his principles and his town—so firmly in the DNA of the genre that it’s impossible to imagine most of the great fictional detectives without twinning them to the cities from which they sprang.

Because he cast such a huge shadow, it’s often Chandler whom critics reach for when needing a comparison point (either negatively or positively) to those who came after him. It can be alarming how often and how lazily his name is bandied about, as if all that’s required to make a writer Chandleresque is the desire to write crazily vivid similes and metaphors. As if Chandler became a kind of critical shorthand—if you write novels in which bad things happen and a principled detective is hired to find out why those bad things happened and you write said story with a certain music in your prose, then you must be Chandleresque. This shorthand strikes me as woefully inaccurate because it fails to grasp the relationship between the writer and the city where the tales are set. You can’t be truly Chandleresque unless you write about Los Angeles. And only then if you do so with the same moral complexity and near-apocalyptic vision. If Chandler has any direct literary descendent, then, any fit wearer of his illustrious crown, any undeniable heir, it can only be Michael Connelly.

Where Chandler found the personification of his hero ideal in Philip Marlowe, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, deeply principled and often philosophical private investigator, Michael Connelly has given us Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, the relentless, tortured, highly principled but deeply pessimistic police detective who entered the literary stage in The Black Echo and has journeyed through fourteen more novels since. Detective Bosch shares his name, of course, with the Dutch Renaissance painter who slathered his canvases with ghastly visions of Hell, and one can certainly draw parallels between the hideous, fallen world of the paintings and the cauldron of sin and injustice that Harry Bosch confronts in modern day Los Angeles.

When Chandler sent his knight errant down Los Angeles’ mean streets alone, “neither tarnished nor afraid,” its mean streets were not, with all due respect to the master, nearly as mean as they are now. Harry Bosch, if rarely afraid, is certainly tarnished. He is the personification, in fact, of Nietzsche’s admonition that those who fight monsters risk becoming monsters themselves. If there is a unifying tension that threads its way through all of the Bosch books, it is that—Bosch is always perilously close to succumbing to violence he not only fights but which inhabits him.

From that first book, The Black Echo, it’s clear that Harry Bosch is a damaged soul. You worry about his physical health from dangers both within (he smokes so many cigarettes you can’t help but assume a heart attack or at least an angioplasty awaits him at novel’s end) and without (a group of ex-military killers and drug smugglers; a possible femme fatale). But more so, you worry about his psychological well-being. This first case will be the one that triggers memories of his service in Vietnam, and Connelly does a masterful job of evoking the claustrophobia and isolationism of a former “tunnel rat.” At the end, we leave Bosch staring at a print of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, that epitome of broken dreams and alienation. Bosch, not surprisingly, identifies with the “darkness. The stark loneliness. The man sitting alone, his face turned to the shadows. I am that man, Harry Bosch would think each time he looked.”

These are the musings of a psychic orphan with attenuated emotional development. But it’s merely warm-up for what will be revealed about Bosch’s psyche in books to come. Because in the annals of American crime fiction series protagonists, it’s hard to imagine one who had a more traumatic history than Harry Bosch.

We soon learn that Harry Bosch entered McClaren Hall, an orphanage, at the age of eleven. He didn’t know his father and was removed from the home he shared with his mother, a prostitute, deemed UM (“unfit mother”) by the State of California. His mother, Marjorie Lowe, would later be murdered and the solving of that case would be the subject of Connelly’s fourth novel, The Last Coyote.

Far more than the investigatory work in that book (maybe the finest investigative narrative in the entire series) what lodges strongest in the memory is the eponymous coyote. Part doppelganger, part ghost, it quickly attains a mythic heft in both the novel and the series as a whole. Just as Bosch continually travels into his own past to uncover his mother’s murderer, so the coyote travels into the historical mist of Los Angeles itself, back before skyscrapers and pollutants and rampant overpopulation, back before the City of Angels became a perverted dream factory that served up far more nightmares than wish fulfillment, back when it was wild and smog-free and largely untouched, when the coyote—far from being the last—would have been part of a pack that outnumbered the human interlopers. This is one of the beating hearts of the city that can’t be fully destroyed—its undeniable and fragile beauty, its wealth of nature so precariously perched on shifting plates in the earth which cause the earthquake that destroys Bosch’s house. It is to this site of nature’s reclamation of itself that the coyote returns again and again. The animal also lives in Bosch’s dreams to such a degree that one could argue that the coyote may not be real at all but is, instead, a vision that Bosch conjures to retain his sanity amidst his love-hate relationship with the city that killed his mother and threatens, on a daily basis, to quit nibbling on his soul and finally get down to the business of eating it whole.

It is in The Last Coyote and in A Darkness More Than Night that Harry Bosch is, for me, most fully realized. I’ve heard Bosch described as representing a reasonably simple code of ethics best exemplified by his mantra, “Everybody counts or nobody counts,” but Connelly invests far more of his authorial energies, whether consciously or not, in the idea that Bosch is not only the last coyote, he’s the lost coyote, his soul consistently imperiled by his forays into the dark heart of a “Hollywood [that] glimmered in the cut, a mirror reflection of the stars of all galaxies everywhere . . . a city with more things wrong than right. A place where the earth could open up beneath you and suck you into the blackness. A city of lost light. His city. It was all of that and, still, always still, a place to begin again. His city. The city of the second chance.”

His city. Bosch’s. And Connelly’s. A city of schismatic paradoxes, where the tumult of nature’s fury is matched only by the turmoil of man’s corruption. Where the physical beauty of velvet oceans and hills garlanded in dots of urban light do battle for our attention with the squalid barrios and the heat-soaked alleys. Where good grips a wet ledge by its fingernails while evil gets a massage at a five-star hotel. If we are to survive the evil, shouldn’t we give the other half of the paradox its rightful name? For if Los Angeles is, in some part of itself, the City of Angels, is it not fair to argue that its mirror half is the City of Devils? And what name would we give a city of devils, after all? If the angels leave us, as Bosch’s mother did, and ascend into the afterlife, what is the name for what they leave behind if not Hell? Los Angeles, ironically named, is the “mirror reflection” of all other places, all other possible realms.

And an angel cannot guide us through here. Only someone fallen. Someone lost. When Terry McCaleb says to Bosch in A Darkness More Than Night, “. . . you have completely fallen. You are lost,” Bosch accepts the assessment by echoing the parable of the prodigal son, “Yeah, well, maybe I’m lost and maybe I’ve been found. I’ll have to think about it. Meantime, why don’t you just go home now. . . .Pretend the world is not what you know it to be.”

That’s Bosch speaking, not Connelly, because Connelly, the writer, is smart enough to see through Bosch and see that the world he inhabits is neither the world as he wants it to be nor the world he “knows it to be.” It’s so much more than that, just as Bosch is so much more than the lonely man in the Nighthawks painting. That man is frozen, stationary. He’s given up.

Harry Bosch, on the other hand, has never given up. Over the course of fifteen novels, he has warred with serial killers, drug smugglers, the mafia, corrupt (and in some cases killer) cops, riotous street gangs, an entrenched LAPD bureaucracy, and the tentacles of the power structure that run the city and, by extension, the world. In just about every case, he has been physically and psychologically damaged. His grip on his soul and his sanity remains precarious. And because of that, I’ve always found it easier to invest in him than in Marlowe. Marlowe was, true to his creator’s vision and personal aesthetic, “a complete man.” Bosch, however, is deeply incomplete, continually haunted by his past, by his baser instincts, by his need for justice (or is it vengeance?) and by his fervent desire, even as he believes the world is as rotten as he “knows it to be,” to create some minor vision of Heaven to illuminate a city, and a world, that has lost its light.

This article originally appeared in the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera on April 30, 2009. Courtesy of Il Corriere della Sera, RCS Quotidiani Spa.