AMERICAN CRIME WRAP-UP: MICHAEL CONNELLY, C. J. BOX and ALAINA URQUHART
My recent reading has covered a fair slice of the United States from Los Angeles to Montana to the swampy bayous of Louisiana.
The pick of the three books is Michael Connelly’s Desert Star, (Allen & Unwin, 8 November 2022).
Michael Connelly is easily in the top half dozen of the world’s best crime writers and Desert Star, sees the iconic Harry Bosch once more teaming up with LAPD Detective Renée Ballard, as they try to track down a pair of cold case killers. Ballard is back on the LAPD and heading up the newly reformed cold case unit at the elite Robbery-Homicide Division. In her new role she offers Bosch a job as a volunteer investigator. Bosch wants to pursue a case that has always haunted him, the murder of an entire family by a psychopath, but first he has to help Ballard clear the unsolved rape and murder of a sixteen-year-old girl. The decades-old case is essential to the councilman who supported re-forming the unit, and who could shut it again, as the victim was his sister. When Ballard gets a “cold hit” connecting the killing to a similar crime, proving that a serial predator has been at work in the city for years, the political pressure has never been higher.
This is another tightly constructed crime novel by Connelly, with a good plot, well-fleshed out characters and a developing sense of suspense and tension as the story progresses. Within a few paragraphs Connelly has you caught up in Ballard and Bosch’s worlds, and worrying about Harry’s health, and before you know it you are totally engrossed in the story and the pages are flying by. Connelly quickly catches the reader up on the details of the two cold cases and seamlessly weaves in the convincing police and forensic detail so important to the story. As the book progresses, the suspense mounts and there is a neat plot twist about three quarters of the way in, before the book races to an exciting and tense climax.
As with all of his novels, Connelly’s sharp-eyed and convincing picture of Los Angeles forms an important backdrop to the book and clearly positions it in the immediate past. There are the expected reflections on the post-COVID impacts on society and a few well directed comments on the media and political influence in policing.
As with Ian Rankin’s recent Rebus novel, A Heart Full Of Headstones, the health of Connelly’s leading protagonist plays an important part in the story. Bosch is getting older and more than once Connelly mentions Bosch’s cracking knees and physical exhaustion and alludes to more serious problems. The ageing process, however, does not slow Bosch’s dedication or his wit, and he is still able to deal decisively with an aggressive witness when he has to:
“Bosch pistoned his left fist under Boatman’s chin and into his throat. Boatman bit off his last word, stepped back, and leaned over, trying to get a breath down his windpipe”.
An enjoyable aspect of Desert Star is the continued development of Ballard as a character. Bosch is a commanding presence in the book, but Connelly continues to flesh Ballard out in interesting ways and grow her as a character. Less strident than she was in the earlier books, she is now more assured and her detective skills are more evident. She even shows some touches of Bosch in how she handles a justice issue towards the end. She is a great character and will be good replacement for Bosch should he ever ride off into the sunset.
In all, Desert Star is a terrific novel. The story entertained and gripped and had a good depth to it. Four and a half stars out of five!
Desert Star seems to be released everywhere in the world around 8 November 2022. Thanks to the publishers and the Canberra Weekly for an advanced copy of the book.
C. J. Box is best known for his stellar series about game warden Joe Pickett, but in recent years he has also been developing a second series about Montana private eye Cassie Dewell, which served as the inspiration for the television series Big Sky.
Treasure State (Head of Zeus, 29 September 2022) is the fifth book to feature Cassie, and it finds the investigator caught up in two cases involving a slippery conman and a supposedly buried treasure. Following a break-in at her offices, Cassie heads to Anaconda, Montana, in search of the con-man and the missing private investigator who was hired to find him. Cassie soon realises that Anaconda, a quirky former copper mining town, is the perfect place to reinvent yourself, and as the case develops, Cassie begins to wonder if her client is telling her everything. Between searching for the con-man and investigating rumours of buried treasure somewhere in the vicinity of Anaconda, Cassie has her hands full.
This a solid crime novel, with a good pace and an interesting plot. Cassie is an engaging and flawed character who goes about her business with a professional ease that is enjoyable to watch. As always with a Box novel, the story unfolds smoothly and high interest is maintained all the way to the exciting conclusion. There is not a lot of mystery here, the bad guys are identified early on, but there are some good twists and unexpected developments. There is also a neat link to the Joe Pickett novels.
As with Connelly, Box is a subtle chronicler of the American psyche, especially as it pertains to rural Montana and its surrounds, and there are some vivid, and slightly depressing, descriptions of urban decay and declining opportunities.
I probably prefer the solid action of the Joe Pickett books, but this is still a very enjoyable novel. Four stars out five!
Treasure State was released in Australia and the United Kingdom on 29 September 2022, and slightly earlier in the United States. Thanks to the publishers and the Canberra Weekly for a copy of the book.
Another plus to Treasure State is the great evocative cover (above) on the Australian and British edition of the book.
Unlike Connelly and Box, Alaina Urquhart is just starting out in her writing career, and her first book, The Butcher And The Wren (Michael Joseph, 20 September 2022), is grisly serial killer tale.
The story is reminiscent of old style serial killer thrillers with an intelligent, but depraved, killer battling it out with a female medical examiner, with whom he is obsessed. The story is set in New Orleans and it is a briskly paced tale, with minimal context and little extraneous detail. The novel alternates between the perspectives of the killer, known as The Butcher, and the medical examiner, Wren Muller, and the story races along to a very abrupt ending. There is also an unexpected plot twist just over half way through, which is quite clever and changes the direction of the novel.
Alaina Urquhart is co-host of a very popular true crime podcast, Morbid, and also an autopsy technician, and there are several gruesome descriptions of autopsies and convincing insider details. We also get to witness some horrific acts of violence by the serial killer and Alaina does not spare the detail. The main protagonists are thinly sketched, but some of the minor characters are nicely done, especially one of The Butcher’s victims towards the end who has real depth to her.
I listened to the book on Audible, which was ably performed by Joe Knezevich and Sophie Amoss, and the short, choppy sentences made it an easy listen. There are some holes in the story, and some parts do not make sense, but it flows well. Readers in America have been quick to criticise the inaccuracies in Alaina’s descriptions of New Orleans and Louisiana, but to an outsider like me it sounded real.
Overall I think that The Butcher And The Wren is an uneven, but enjoyable read, and I will be interested to see where Alaina goes with the characters. She has good potential and with tighter editing I think that Alaina has the makings of a good crime writer.
The Butcher And The Wren was released in late September 2022.