BOOKS: Writer weaves stories from wisps of L.A. life

LOS ANGELES -- Michael Connelly is looking to stage a kidnapping. The writer wheels his rented SUV through the streets of Hancock Park. He turns right at Fifth Street and Windsor Boulevard, and a two-story villa set back from the street catches h...

Michael Connelly
Author Michael Connelly scouts Los Angeles for locations for a novel he's writing. (McClatchy Tribune)

LOS ANGELES -- Michael Connelly is looking to stage a kidnapping. The writer wheels his rented SUV through the streets of Hancock Park. He turns right at Fifth Street and Windsor Boulevard, and a two-story villa set back from the street catches his eye.

The trash cans are out. A woman in a bathrobe, standing on the front porch, turns to stare.

He pulls out his iPhone and takes a picture. He lifts his foot off the brake and idles ahead. He's pleased with what he found: a waist-high bush on the corner, the Hollywood sign in the distance, palm trees angling overhead, a little crack in the sidewalk edging toward the lawn.

He likes Hancock Park. "The islands of wealth in Los Angeles are often protected by mountains and by the sea," he said. "There is no protection in Hancock Park."

Prolific author


For nearly 20 years, Connelly has prowled the streets of Los Angeles, quick to expose their contradictions and cruelties. At age 53, he's written a shelf full of books, and he's here today to research the latest, due out in October. He's 342 pages into it.

He came to Los Angeles for a mystery writers' convention and added a day for himself. The agenda: Find a house for a kidnapping and an alley for a body drop, tour Mulholland Drive, check out a sinkhole and poke around Franklin Canyon for a spot where ... well, he's not entirely certain how the book will end.

He pulls onto Wilshire Boulevard, westbound. The welter of Los Angeles' Mid-City streetscape slips by: billboards, supergraphics, office buildings, a few bungalows, power lines and traffic signals, corporate logos and mom-and-pop signage.

Since 2001, he has lived in Tampa, Fla., and writing about a city 2,000 miles away forces him to be diligent about details that a local might skip over.

"Connelly is a skilled urban geographer. Like Raymond Chandler, he gives us Los Angeles in a prosaic, very realistic manner," said Kevin Starr, professor of history at the University of Southern California. "A lot of Southern California mystery writers give us an overwrought, symbolic landscape from the beginning, but in Connelly, the ominous and dangerous creep up upon you out of the ordinary."

Details matter

Details matter to Connelly, and although he is a fiction writer, he isn't about to make everything up. He'll joke and say it's his lack of imagination. Truth is: He enjoys collecting even the smallest elements. They help him connect to the story once he has returned home, and he uses them to build atmosphere.

A crack in the sidewalk, "like a scar on the face," is suggestive of past violence; a street called Windsor, just like the castle, is nicely ironic for a kidnapping.


Just before the El Rey Theater, he heads up Dunsmuir Avenue, puzzled that there's no alley, just a large parking lot for the His and Hers Hair Goods Co. He circles the block and parks on Burnside Avenue. He can't find coins for the meter. He'll risk it.

From the day he arrived in the late 1980s in the city of his literary hero, Raymond Chandler, Los Angeles has provided him with plenty of leads. A crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times in the San Fernando Valley, he filed away material from his beat and, after publishing three novels, left the paper in 1993, eventually moving East.

Last spring, after the tour for "The Scarecrow" and before publication of "Nine Dragons," neither he nor his lead investigator, protagonist LAPD Det. Hieronymus Bosch, could get any traction on a book whose central crime borrowed from the Bernard Madoff scandal.

Then one morning during a rundown of the usual websites -- LATimes, LAObserved, LAPD, DeadlineHollywood, LAdowntownnews and losanjealous -- he read a headline that stopped him. "Child abduction survivor lives with fear and guilt," it read. "When she was 8, Opal Horton escaped from a kidnapper. Her friend wasn't so lucky. Now 32, she testifies at a man's sentencing in the slaying of another girl."

Connelly felt a shiver of recognition. He put aside the Madoff story and, following his gut, began to write the kidnapping scene, making a few changes from the news account in order to turn up the emotions.

'The Reversal'

The new novel is called "The Reversal." Half police procedural, half courtroom drama, it features Bosch, attorney Mickey Haller and Jason Jessup, a tow truck driver who has spent 24 years in prison for the kidnapping and murder of Melissa Landy. DNA evidence, however, put the conviction into question, and he's out on bail awaiting a new trial.

Connelly created the plot not just from the Chicago kidnapping story but from the case of Bruce Lisker, the Sherman Oaks, Calif., man who as a teen was convicted of killing his mother and in 1986 was sentenced to 16 years to life before his release in September.


Connelly's especially intrigued by the intersection of past and present -- it's one reason he assigned Bosch to cold cases -- and in a city with 6,000 unsolved homicides, his detective will never want for work.

If Connelly is troubled by the lack of an ending, he doesn't show it. "You are expected in a crime novel to make it all fit together at the end. But reality is all about loose ends, and I do my best to subvert the need to solve everything."

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