By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 17, 2014
Michael Connelly is a best-selling mystery author who’s written more than two dozen books. The Black Box, Connelly’s 2012 novel, is the 16th entry in the Harry Bosch series, which chronicles the exploits of a hard-bitten Los Angeles homicide detective.
I’ve read a few Connelly works, including Nine Dragons, the 14th of Bosch’s adventures. In The Black Box, the detective is working on a cold-case investigation of the murder of a Danish journalist and freelance war correspondent on the final night of the 1992 L.A. riots, which broke out after not-guilty verdicts were rendered against the four police officers accusing of beating Rodney King.
Bosch originally investigated Jespersen’s killing two decades ago, but the riots afforded him only a matter of minutes to search for evidence. With the 20th anniversary of the riots fast approaching, he gets another crack at providing justice for the victim, as this early expository passage shows:
Bosch specifically asked for the Anneke Jespersen case and after twenty years returned to it. Not without misgivings. He knew that most cases were solved within the first forty-eight hours and after that the chances of clearance dropped markedly. This case had barely been worked for even one of those forty-eight hours. It had been neglected because of circumstances, and Bosch had always felt guilty about it, as though he had abandoned Anneke Jespersen. No homicide detective likes leaving a case behind unsolved, but in this situation Bosch was given no choice. The case was taken from him. He could easily blame the investigators that followed him on it, but Bosch had to count himself among those responsible. The investigation started with him at the crime scene. He couldn’t help but feel that no matter how short a time he was there, he must have missed something.
Now, twenty years later, he got another shot at it. And it was a very long shot at that. He believed that every case had a black box. A piece of evidence, a person, a positioning of facts that brought a certain understanding and helped explain what had happened and why. But with Anneke Jespersen, there was no black box. Just a pair of musty cardboard boxes retrieved from archives that gave Bosch little direction or hope. The boxes included the victim’s clothing and bulletproof vest, her passport, and other personal items, as well as a backpack and the photographic equipment retrieved from her hotel room after the riots. There was also the single 9mm shell casing found at the crime scene, and the thin investigative file put together by the Riot Crimes Task Force. The so-called murder book.
The novel’s narrative is fairly straightforward. Once he connects the gun used to kill Jespersen to a series of gang murders, Bosch pushes his investigation as fast and as far as he can. Along the way, he fakes a search warrant in order to recover a murder weapon, convinces a lab technician to analyze the gun ahead of schedule, and misleads a witness in order to extract a confession.
There are a few subplots. Bosch attempts to provide a stable home for his teenage daughter (whom he essentially adopted at the end of Nine Dragons), makes a rather half-hearted effort to figure out what he wants from his romantic relationship with a psychologist named Hannah, and spars with his immediate supervisor and the chief of police, who are worried about the racial implications of solving a cold case involving a white victim. (This last narrative thread very much feels as if it’s been created solely to gin up drama.) But the Jespersen investigation is never far from the spotlight.
The book is pretty fast-paced, but it kicks into overdrive in the final 100 pages, after the detective identifies a small ring of conspirators and begins pressuring the man he identifies as the weakest link. Bosch, who at this point is pursuing the case unofficially, pulls a few shady stunts and starts to crack the murder, but it turns out that his prey is more aware of his investigation than he’d prefer.
The Black Box is a good mix — two parts procedural, one part thriller, with a dash of subplots and Bosch’s usual nod to the author’s latest favorite jazz album. The writing isn’t spectacular, and there are no deep insights to be had, but the mystery is genuinely engrossing (even though I was able to guess a few key elements early on).
Overall, the entertainment factor is pretty high. Mystery fans, and even casual readers of mysteries and thrillers, would be smart to bring The Black Box along on their next trip.