Reviewed by Ian Lipke
When you read a Michael Connelly novel, you feel as though you’re right in the middle of the action in the Los Angeles Police Department. I wouldn’t know what life in the LAPD is like, having read Connelly, I have no wish to know. I’ll observe all the politicking and the infighting at a very long distance while I enjoy a first class tale by a man who does seem to know.
The Late Show is a wonderfully told tale. The plot is simple. Detective Renee Ballard has been allocated to the night beat following a sexual harassment case that went wrong. Her partner failed to stand by her when she lodged a complaint against a supervisor, and when the decision went against her, the same supervisor scheduled her to work each night and hand over any investigation next morning to the more privileged day teams.
Ballard is alert, street smart, and although young, can join the dots. Her working life consists of not only doing her job but also spending much time covering herself against any possible further punishment. The most galling part of her job is having to walk away from an unfolding investigation. However two cases present that she cannot walk away from, and she works double shifts to solve them.
With no support from her partner and enmity or suspicion on the part of the wider LAPD her only solace is her dog and the long board that takes her away in dreams as she glides across the nearby surf. Stubborn and hard-headed, intelligent and fearless she deals with whatever the Department can throw at her. But, like Harry Bosch, there are limits.
Michael Connelly has a style that is recognizable anywhere. It has served him well in his previous books and he clearly sees no reason to change it now. “Ballard and Jenkins rolled up on the house on El Centro shortly before midnight. It was the first call of the shift” (3). No further words are needed. We’re into the action immediately. Laying the scene is a matter of moments. While there are no superfluous words, there is also no confusion. The story unfolds from there.
One of Connelly’s strengths is his writing of description and dialogue. He has the pacing just right and the air of mystery that keeps the reader focused on the unfolding events is due entirely to skill born of experience. The telling of the incident involving the tramp Stormy and the denizen that Ballard finds in Stormy’s van is pure gold:
“Yeah, what do you want?”
Denver stepped in unbidden.
“Hey Stormy, you got the police out here. They want to see inside the crib on account of Ramona used to live here.”
“Yeah, she ain’t livin’ here now,” Stormy replied. “I’m sleeping.”
“Open the door, sir,” Ballard said loudly.
“You have a warrant or something? I know my rights.
Ballard told the patrol officers to watch Beatty while she took a look inside the RV” (133 – 34).
Connelly is quite capable of dribbling details, as he does with the sexual harassment complaint that drew the Department’s censure onto the rookie cop. He details the actions, often petty in nature, of Ballard’s colleagues who do not hide their gratification when a cop with abilities greater than their own is given a come-uppance. Miniature pen pictures show the men’s characters through what they do and say. But there are also police who are unconvinced that the punishment was deserved. They stand by and watch what develops. They do not support her or interfere in her professional life in any way.
Other characterizations that flow from Connelly’s pen and are developed more fully relate to the villain who, knowing Ballard is vulnerable, can see a way to shed his guilt by offloading it secretly on to her. Second, the senior officer who committed the harassment is drawn as offering the temptation to forget and forgive and be ‘one of the boys’ again. As expected Ballard turns the villain’s attempts to escape punishment back upon him and refuses to cooperate with her tormentor.
Why was this expected?
I would have to assume that Connelly has a future for his new creation but I am not convinced that this is so. I fight the urge to say that Renee Ballard is Harry Bosch in a new body. Already she is acting exactly as Harry Bosch would. She faces the same set of challenges, she has the same difficulties retaining the love of a significant other, and she responds to challenges using the same set of skills that saw an astute Bosch forge success out of the particular case he was working at the time but lose out to his enemies among the hierarchy in the long haul. Both Bosch and Ballard fight corruption where they see it. But the cost is the knowledge that they are the grain of sand that disrupts the organisation but is eventually ground to insignificance by the giant mill-wheels of administration.
It would be a great pity if this is all there is for Ballard. It is indisputably true that Connelly sees the LAPD as severely wanting, as an organization whose members have lost any enthusiasm they might have had as rookie police. Perhaps it is time for a new direction in which Ballard is the key.
Concerns aside, in my view this is a great piece of entertaining reading. Connelly never deviates from writing a story that is difficult to put down. I couldn’t. I continue to recommend his books very highly.
By Michael Connelly
Allen & Unwin