Wild About Harry

An interview with Michael Connelly
By Benjamin Reese

Since his first book was published in 1992, Michael Connelly has garnered accolades from all quarters, earning favorable comparisons to crime fiction legends like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Now appearing in his 10th outing, Connelly's series character, Detective Hieronymous "Harry" Bosch, remains one of the most complex and engaging in the genre. Connelly recently took time to chat with Amazon.com senior editor Ben Reese about keeping a series fresh, Stephen King, and what makes a good fictional serial killer.

Amazon.com: The publication of your latest novel, The Narrows, marks 10 years of Harry Bosch. When you wrote the first book, The Black Echo, did you expect he'd be around this long?

Michael Connelly: No. I think maybe that's one of the things I had going for me, that I was lucky about, in that I never anticipated there would be a lot of stories, so I think that with every story I put everything I had into it. I didn't hold anything back thinking there'd be another one. And I think that made each book intricate and hopefully character-heavy. Maybe that's been the key to his survival.

Amazon.com: You didn't expect Harry to be picked up as a series?

Connelly: Really, you just hope to be invited to the party. I was obviously mindful of series fiction. That's what I liked to read. When I built him and I wrote that first book, the hope was, yeah, maybe they'll want more than one, but I can't count on that. This might be the only thing I ever get published. This is it. So, of course I had hopes for it, but still, ten books is more than a million words about one character. I never would have thought that I would have that opportunity.

"I decided I would write one story where the bad guy got away as a little reminder in my fictional universe that sometimes they do get away--a little intrusion of reality. My intention was to never write a sequel." -- Michael Connelly on The Poet

Amazon.com: After a decade, how do you keep the character fresh?

Connelly: I can't remember who said it, but somebody's analysis of series fiction is that the only constant in a series should be change, and I'm very aware of that. I'm always thinking of ways of not only changing Harry's life or spinning him in new directions, but I'm also doing that with myself, switching to first-person perspective, moving 3,000 miles away, doing whatever I can to keep myself from getting too comfortable. I think that leads to keeping Harry from being too comfortable and hopefully that keeps him going, keeps him interesting.

Amazon.com: You switched to first-person perspective in Lost Light, the ninth book in the series, and now The Narrows is also written from Harry's point of view. Does writing in first-person change the writing process for you?

Connelly: I think it's easier to get into, but then you encounter other difficulties. First-person is so personal that it can hinder plot development. When you're in third-person, you can hold stuff back. In first-person, if you do that you're going to probably upset the readers because they'll feel cheated if Harry ends up having known something all along and they weren't given that. So that changes things a lot, especially after I had written eight books in third-person. I was used to, in a way, making Harry a little mysterious by the things I was able to hold back. I lost that when I went to first-person.

Amazon.com: Does the switch in perspective change Harry as a character?

Connelly: Yeah, it definitely makes him more personal to the reader. Since the switch to first-person, I've added more personal details, gave him a child and gave him those kinds of things. I think it has made him more internal. I always tried to make him a very internal character, where you're viewing the world through his eyes and his thoughts. And I just think it's amplified when you go to first-person.

Amazon.com: Your publisher is re-issuing The Poet, the book in which the villain in The Narrows appears for the first time, with a new foreword by Stephen King. How did that come about?

Connelly: I had known for awhile that he was a fan of the book. My sister lives out in Colorado and when Stephen King went out there to direct the TV version of The Shining there was a newspaper story about how he was reading The Poet while he was waiting for shots to be set up and my sister forwarded that to me. And then in his book On Writing he had made a mention of The Poet being a book he enjoyed.

Unfortunately for Stephen King, that's all it took and we descended upon him.

I was prevailed upon to approach Stephen King, who I had met previously, and ask him to do it. I was just kind of babbling, trying to get it out, stammering as I was trying to get out the question, and he just cut me off and said, "I'd be happy to do it." He's a very generous person. And then he did it very quickly and nicely. He said some very nice things.

"After 12 years on the police beat, I would say I was very cynical. I was burned out. I was much like the guy in The Poet . Jack McEvoy was very much based on me." -- Michael Connelly

Amazon.com: The Narrows marks the first time you've brought back a bad guy for a second appearance. Why this time?

Connelly: This is going to be a long answer. When I wrote The Poet , I had just retired from about 15 years as a journalist, 12 of which I was a police reporter. As I cleared out my desk I came across all these files I had collected over the years, where I had created files when I wrote a story about a murder so then I'd have all the information for when the police solved it and I'd write the follow up story saying it's been solved. I had all these files where I never did that story because they were unsolved. And it dawned on me very clearly the transition I was making. I was going from reality journalism to crime fiction where the anticipation is that the case is always solved and good triumphs over evil. I decided I would write one story where the bad guy got away as a little reminder in my fictional universe that sometimes they do get away-a little intrusion of reality. My intention was to never write a sequel.

But, as I said, I'd just retired from journalism and after 12 years on the police beat, I would say I was very cynical. I was burned out. I was much like the guy in The Poet . Jack McEvoy was very much based on me.

It's been eight years since then and my cynicism has receded. I'm a more hopeful person. I'm a father, which also played into this. And so it began to bother me that my cynicism at that time had led me to want to write a story about a murderer, a very bad murderer getting away. That built and built and built and I decided, 'I don't want to carry that around. I'm just going to go into that alternate universe I have and try to fix that mistake.'

Amazon.com: Serial killers seem to be a staple of suspense writing, so much so that they can often border on cliché. What are your thoughts on serial killers in crime fiction?

Connelly: It's like any kind of plot device, if you want to call it that. If it's done well, I'm there. I'm all for it. If it's not done well, it becomes part of the cliché. It is a challenge. I think that's why you see a lot of them, in my fiction at least. When you write a series you're sort of robbed of one piece of tension, and that is the likelihood is that your character is going to survive and live another day in another book. So you look for other ways of replacing or amping up that kind of tension, and the serial killer is the perfect answer to that because the stakes are so high with the serial killer. It's not only that they're trying to solve the case but they have the added dimension that if they don't solve it or don't solve it quickly enough, somebody else may die. That is a veneer of tension that goes over a book that is just so attractive to writers.

Amazon.com: What makes a good fictional serial killer?

Connelly: One that is mentally dysfunctional, who has blind spots in his own pathology. Not one that's a master criminal, but one who has these blind spots and, whether knowingly or unknowingly, exploits the cracks in law enforcement. I guess what I'm saying is one that tends more toward the real serial killers that we know. In the analysis of most serial killers and their ability to go on and on, it's not necessarily that they're master criminals, it's more that the bureaucracy of law enforcement allows them to go on.

Amazon.com: It was interesting to read how you made your characters react to the real-life movie Blood Work, which featured Clint Eastwood as Terry McCaleb, the character whose death Bosch winds up investigating in The Narrows .

Connelly: All my work is interconnected. It all moves on the same plane and it all moves in real time. All through all my books, I take things from real life that are happening and put them in the book. If I start doing that with only one thing, I don't see where I can draw the line and not acknowledge the movie. I actually put a precedent in my book Angels Flight, where there's a moment, less than half a page, where Harry Bosch and his partner are bantering in a car and they pass a billboard for the movie Blood Work and they start talking about how they know Terry McCaleb and how they don't think Eastwood looks like him. It's just a little aside but if I believe all my books are interconnected, then that little precedent broke the fourth wall, and if I then move forward to write a story about Terry McCaleb dying, I think I have to include that there was a movie based on him.

Amazon.com: Speaking of movies, early copies of The Narrows all included a limited edition DVD called Blue Neon Night, in which you take viewers for a stroll around the Los Angeles of Harry Bosch. And early copies of Lost Light all came with a CD of the music Harry Bosch listens to in your stories.

Connelly: What do I do next? I just quietly publish my next book (laughs). These things are great. They function well as a promotion. They also function as a nice give-back to people who've been riding along with me. In the case of the DVD, it's kind of my love letter to Los Angeles because I'm very cognizant of hoping people don't think I've abandoned LA because of moving away. I just think it's a good change in writing about LA to look at it from afar. That's where the DVD came from.

Amazon.com: Can you give us a hint as to what Harry Bosch will be up to in your next book?

Connelly: He goes back into the police department--another change, another new direction. He goes back in, as I think becomes evident in The Narrows , and he's just working on a new case. It's about an 18-year-old murder of a high school girl who is kidnapped from her home in the night. The working title is Blue Religion , taken from the idea of Harry coming back into the fold of the police department and that culture again.