Driving home at midnight from his dishwashing job, a 16-year-old Michael Connelly saw a suspicious-looking man in street clothes running. He pulled off a shirt, used it to wrap something he was carrying and dropped the bundle into a hedge without slowing down.
When the man ducked into a biker bar, Connelly pulled over and found a gun in the bushes. He led police to the weapon and the bar.
Police rounded up several patrons who matched the description Connelly had given. When Connelly told them the man he had seen was not among the suspects at the police station, angry investigators didn’t believe him. The cops thought he was intimidated and didn’t want to identify a killer, Connelly remembers.
“It ended badly. I could not convince these guys they didn’t have the right guy,” Connelly said.
Even so, the experience intrigued Connelly, now 57, and foreshadowed a career as a crime reporter and bestselling author whose plots and characters are created from those acute observational skills and instinct for human behavior.
After working at newspapers in Florida, Connelly joined the Los Angeles Times on the cops and courts beat. He started to pursue novel-writing while still at the Times, making a deal with his wife that he would spend four nights a week and one day each weekend working on his fiction.
Popular detective, then lawyer
More than two decades later, he has sold 50 million books and repeatedly topped the New York Times bestseller list. His book “The Lincoln Lawyer” was turned into a major motion picture. Amazon.com recently began shooting an hourlong pilot based on Connelly’s popular protagonist, Los Angeles homicide detective Harry Bosch. On that project, Connelly shares screenwriting duties with Eric Overmyer (“The Wire”). Bosch is being played by Titus Welliver (“Argo,” “Deadwood,” “The Good Wife”).
Connelly’s latest book, “The Gods of Guilt,” features another protagonist, criminal defense lawyer Mickey Haller, a k a the Lincoln lawyer. The book details a complicated legal case that Connelly said required him to be in frequent contact with judges and lawyers as he wrote.
His brief book tour next month includes a Dec. 3 stop at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater for Talking Volumes.
Bitten by the crime beat
Connelly was a construction-engineering major at the University of Florida in Gainesville in 1977 when he saw director Robert Altman’s version of Raymond Chandler’s book “The Long Goodbye.” He was bitten by the desire to write about crime and after consulting with his dad, switched his major to journalism.
The transition to fiction began after he had been at the L.A. Times for three years. It was not all big advances and strong sales. Connelly’s first two novels never saw daylight. The journalist in him didn’t allow Connelly to inhabit a character’s mind or give him a back story.
In his first two books, “I was writing what characters said rather than what they were thinking or what they were doing,” Connelly said.
Six years after he started, Connelly published his first novel and won an Edgar Award for best mystery debut.
He has since loaded down his protagonists Bosch and Haller with the burdens that come from lonely childhoods, the daily grind of prickly relationships and work that brushes them daily against the darkest souls. Connelly, for example, said Bosch is physically “wiry,” not from pumping iron in the weight room, but “carrying the weight of life.”
When he undertakes a new book, Connelly said, he knows how it will start and end, but the middle is a journey he takes with his protagonists. “I’ve just always felt confident that stuff will come to me as I go,” he said. “It’s kind of a mystical process. There’s a serendipity to it that amazes me.”
Connelly gets ideas in the same way a journalist gets tips: over regular meet-ups with sources — homicide detectives, lawyers and judges — who have become close friends. “I’m still a reporter at heart. I wish I could tell you I’m a creative genius who makes this stuff up,” he said.
He lives primarily in Florida, but also in Los Angeles, the beautiful but broken milieu of his books. Sincerity, he said, is the tool for coaxing his friends to talk. “I want to get their world right. Not just the procedure, but the interior world,” Connelly said.
A lot of stuff “drops in my lap,” Connelly said, but he added that he puts himself in a position to catch it. When a homicide detective told him about an arson fire that killed 11 people in Los Angeles in 1992, Connelly wrote something similar into a book, giving a new character a back story that involved losing her father to arson as a child.
From start to final edits, a book takes Connelly about 10 months. He’s written one a year for the past 20 years. “A lot of people equate fast with a lack of quality. I don’t. I write fast when I’m more connected to the story,” Connelly said.
Connelly maintains the sensibilities of his childhood, when his father worked in construction. “I try to remain blue-collar,” he said. “I don’t want to say I’m living in disguise. My house is bigger. I have an apartment in L.A., but I’m not pulling up to these meetings in a Maserati. I drive a pickup truck.”
Though he’s been out of daily journalism for years, Connelly speaks reverently of the “camaraderie and pranksterism” in newsrooms, the adrenaline rush of being amid 150 clacking keyboards on deadline.
Sounding as freshly satisfied as if it were yesterday, Connelly recalled the thrill of driving home after a night reporting shift on the crime beat, looking out from the freeway over the lights of Los Angeles. “I felt like I was the prince of the city because I knew stuff already — before everyone else — that was going to be in the paper tomorrow,” he said.
Connelly said he gets similar fulfillment now from writing a really good sentence or dialogue. His days on set are long now, but ordinarily he maintains a daily writing habit that starts before dawn and keeps him prolific.
“I always want to be writing,” he said. “In fact, I’m antsy right now because I want to be writing.”