Over the last year and a half, many novelists have pondered how to reckon with events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests over George Floyd’s murder in their work. This dilemma may be most profound for writers of crime fiction, especially police procedurals, because the legitimacy of norms established by early masters like Ed McBain and Joseph Wambaugh has now been cast, justifiably and irrevocably, into doubt. Do cops desire to protect and serve all citizens equally? Can order be restored to a community through the resolution of a crime? Is a police department capable of policing itself? Then, there’s the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, in which some 52 individuals among the more than 600 arrested were active or retired law enforcement. All of this raises deep and systemic questions about the future of policing.
So what does a “new normal” look like in a police procedural?
Perhaps no one is better equipped to address that question than Michael Connelly. Once a Los Angeles Times crime reporter, he has gone on to write 36 novels, the majority of which feature Harry Bosch, an LAPD homicide detective of the old school. Bosch’s motto—“Everybody counts or nobody counts”—forms the moral center of the nearly two dozen books that portray the character and his complex motivations, which include not only a desire for justice but also the necessity of navigating (or at least surviving) the Machiavellian politics of the LAPD.
In that sense, Bosch has always been a character who, while working inside the department, has also remained outside of it, a keen observer of its failings.
Connelly’s 36th novel, The Dark Hours, is the third in which Bosch shares the bill with Renée Ballard, a mixed-race (partially Native Hawaiian) homicide detective in her 30s. Much like Bosch when he was younger, she was driven out of the Robbery-Homicide Division in downtown Los Angeles and reassigned to Hollywood. Ballard has had to contend with sexual harassment by superiors (this is what got her exiled from RHD) and all the various microaggressions experienced by females on the job. A colleague tries to guess her ethnicity with the racist comment, “You look like there’s something going on there.” Bosch’s disillusionment with the LAPD has developed over decades, but Ballard is emblematic of a younger generation that sees the rot beneath the badge much sooner and must find a way to protect and serve despite that knowledge.
The Dark Hours initially finds Ballard partnered with Lisa Moore, a reluctant detective from the Hollywood Division Sexual Assault Unit. It’s New Year’s Eve 2020, and they are taking shelter under a freeway overpass beside a homeless encampment near a residential neighborhood in Hollywood called the Dell. Ballard has been left exhausted by the past year. “She’d been spat on,” Connelly writes, “figuratively and literally, by the people she thought she stood for and protected. It was a hard lesson, and a sense of futility had set upon her and was deep in the marrow now.”
The detectives are staking out a pair of rapists called the Midnight Men, who have been attacking young women in their homes. Then, a stray bullet—part of the “gunshot symphony” of New Year’s Eve—kills former gang member Javier Raffa, now owner of an auto-body shop. After examining Raffa’s body, Ballard concludes that the shooting was not accidental; later, forensic analysis of the bullet casing links the murder to an unsolved case once worked by Bosch. The discovery reconnects Ballard and Bosch, who has been something of a mentor to the younger detective.
Connelly’s unparalleled knowledge of police procedure and forensics is on fine display, but where The Dark Hours truly excels is in its assessment and portrayal of the LAPD’s demoralized ranks. The department has been brought low by both COVID (even Ballard contracts the virus) and the rank and file’s shift from proactive to reactive policing in the aftermath of George Floyd. “To Ballard,” Connelly explains, “much of the department had fallen into the pose of a citizen caught in the middle of a bank robbery. Head down, eyes averted, adhering to the warning: nobody move, and nobody gets hurt.”
That sorry sentiment is anathema to Ballard. So, too, is it to Bosch. What they uncover as they work together takes us into the dark recesses of a new kind of criminal underworld. In the aftermath of January 6, the challenges and choices Connelly presents for his characters, especially Ballard, create genuine suspense. The Dark Hours is the most riveting of Connelly’s Renée Ballard novels, and a hopeful signpost for the future of the police procedural.