Crime writer Michael Connelly talks about setting his latest novel in Hong Kong and what top mystery writers have in common.
Not many authors on their umpteenth bestseller would relish the idea of doing an interview from the back nine during a round of golf. But Michael Connelly was not only game, he was relieved.
"Everybody else has shot into the water on this hole," he said via cell phone from Tampa. "I get to get out of playing it now. After 40 years, my handicap is 28. I don't play enough."
That might be because he's been busy writing crime novels, most of them featuring pragmatic Los Angeles police detective Harry Bosch. Connelly, 53, lives in Florida with his wife and daughter. He wrote his first page-turner while working as a suburban-cops reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Before that, he covered the crime beat for a couple of south Florida newspapers.
In a crowded pop-fiction genre, his stories stand out because he combines a journalist's eye for facts with a storyteller's momentum, keeping his characters fresh and evolving. He also adds touches of erudition, referencing painters and jazz musicians.
Steve Stilwell, former owner of the mystery book store Once Upon a Crime in south Minneapolis and a friend of Connelly's, calls him "shy, but a little less than he used to be" before his success. "He's a really good observer, and very self-aware. There's no pretense. Back 18 years ago when I started reading 'Black Echo,' his first, I thought he was the best I'd seen in 25 years. You never know what's going to make the bestseller lists, but I knew I'd keep reading him."
Connelly, who will be in the Twin Cities on Sunday for two local events, put his driver down long enough to talk about "9 Dragons," which takes place partly in Hong Kong.
Q You decided several books ago that you wanted to take Harry to Hong Kong, and planted a seed by having his daughter and her mom go live there. Why Hong Kong?
A It has that "you just don't know" factor. I've traveled all over the world, and not every big city is exotic enough. I started a story with Harry in Paris and abandoned it. Hong Kong shares a lot with L.A., the same kind of feeling in that you think anything could happen. It's a place full of mystery and has that edge -- a place full of people from somewhere else with a lot of dreams and ideas. Around any corner you could find riches, or a gun in your face.
Q I understand you went back to Hong Kong to do more research, but that you didn't want to get to know the city too well. Why is that?
A Harry's comfort zone is the readers' comfort zone. Now he's out of his element, and I needed him to make real mistakes. All of the Hong Kong action takes place over one day, with Harry moving across the city with almost brutal force in pursuit of something. He flashes his money in the wrong place, with consequences. I got lost a few times, and didn't know taking the tunnel was faster than taking a boat across the harbor. Harry does that, too.
Q "9 Dragons" brings Harry to new emotional territory, dealing with his child. Were you worried about retaining his authenticity?
A I knew it would be a challenge. I had to remain true to the fact that Harry has no real parenting experience because he's a fly-in father. After she has a really traumatic weekend, he sticks her in school. Three editors gave me feedback that no one who has a kid would do that, they'd go to a neighbor, and I said, Harry's an institutional man and that's where he puts his trust. He's not a guy who knows his neighbors.
Q Harry is in his late 50s. Will you continue allowing him to age in real time?
A It would be too jarring to stop now. One of the things I'm happiest about with this book is that it sets up a future for him. He's 60 this year, and the oldest guy working homicide in the LAPD is 63, so I have two or three years left with him carrying a badge. I thought I'd have to retire him or kill him, neither of which appeals to me.
Q You do readings at big chain bookstores, and also at some small independent stores, like Once Upon a Crime. Why?
A They were one of the stores who wanted me to come when no one else did yet, back in '94. So I feel some loyalty there.
Q You left the L.A. Times after they didn't promote you to the metro-cops beat from suburban cops. Do they regret that now?
A I'm still waiting for the apology. But it gave me a negative motivation to speed up my book-writing efforts, so I'm glad about it.
Q Is there an award or honor you haven't won that you'd really like to?
A Lots. I won the Edgar for best first novel, but I'd like the one for best novel overall; it's the top award in the game. Also one called the Hammett, for literary thrillers.
Q You're an old hand at the 13-cities-in-13-days pace of book tours. Do you just go into a zen state to get through them?
A I could definitely use that. The late nights and early mornings are difficult, but you get buoyed by meeting people who love your characters. There's no way around saying that ego is involved, listening to them tell you how good you are. I just try to miss the going out for the drinks after.
Q Your novel "Blood Work" was made into a movie starring Clint Eastwood, but none of the Bosch stories have yet made it to the screen. Who would you cast as Harry?
A I've written about him so many years that he has a solid look in my own mind that no one in real life has. Of course, if George Clooney wanted to be Harry the film would get made in a minute, so ... it's looking like 'The Lincoln Lawyer' has a real shot at getting made, so we'll see.
Q Having been in the game a while and also spending a year as president of the Mystery Writers Association, you've probably met a lot of your peers -- John Sandford, James Patterson, Janet Evanovitch. Do mystery writers share any personality traits?
A Surprisingly, I think to a person, none are competitive. No one feels that if a reader is buying my book that they're not also buying theirs. They're very helpful. When I'm in their towns they'll come to my signings and offer to take me to dinner. An example: My books always seem to come out at the same time as your Minnesota guy Vince Flynn's, and he takes me to Manny's. You'd think to look at the bestseller charts that we'd be punching each other out.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046