Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Book Review: The Overlook by Michael Connelly

Like most everything I review on this site, I came late to the Harry Bosch party. The first book I read by Michael Connelly was The Poet...and I read it ten years after publication. When I finally got around to reading The Poet, I knew that a sequel already existed, The Narrows. I read The Poet anyway and then The Narrows. Thus, was my introduction to Harry Bosch.

Later, I went back and read Bosch’s first book, The Black Echo, and then the next two. Somewhere in the mix of all those, I started following Connelly’s story in the New York Times, The Overlook. For various reasons, I stopped reading the weekly installments back in the fall of 2006. Later, Connelly revised the story, making it more the novel it wanted to be rather than sixteen sections of equal word length. I read the novel and quite liked it.

In The Overlook, Bosch is with a special unit of robbery homicide and he gets the call around midnight. Like many times throughout his books, Bosch is asleep in an easy chair, fully dressed, ready for a case. He gets one, a murdered man out on the overlook over Mulholland. He’s breaking in a new partner, a kid half his age, and the crotchety self of Bosch comes out. That’s the least of his worries as FBI Special Agent Rachel Walling, old flame and fellow adventurer of previous books (including The Narrows), shows up and pulls federal rank. Bosch doesn’t like that--natch--and the case is on.

The Overlook is short, unlike nearly all of Connelly’s books. That feature alone makes it a nice introduction to Bosch. He’s all there, at least as I can tell from the four previous books I read. Knowing some of the detail that Connelly brings to his books, it’s a nice break to have a lighter book with a straightforward plot. I can only imagine how many readers first read the story in the New York Times and proceeded to buy more Bosch books. He’s a great character. He ages in real time. He gets hurt and, well, it hurts him. He’s not above it all, although he thinks he is some of the times.

Connelly’s writing style is, to me, of the Elmore Leonard School of Writing. Leonard, like Connelly, gets out of the way as much as possible when he writes. You actually forget that Connelly is the one writing the book. Unlike, say, Don Winslow or Ken Bruen--you read a few sentences and you know, right off the bat, who the writer is. That’s cool for them. Connelly’s different. You take any one paragraph out of any of his books and, chances are, you’d be hard pressed to name the writer. That is a great trait to have, in my opinion. It does not get in the way of the story.

Another aspect of Connelly’s style that more obvious to me is what I like to call the Put-Every-Detail-In way of writing. Leonard has stated that he likes to start a scene as late as possible and get out before the scene ends. Connelly writes everything: what the characters eat, how they dress, every detail is laid out, scene by scene. I do think this is an effective way to write and I tend to be of this variety more often than not. My critique group likes to excise stuff that, upon re-reading, I see I don't need.

A word about the audio: Len Cariou is a good reader for the older Bosch. Dick Hill, the reader for a lot of the other Bosch books, is a good reader, too, but Cariou was especially effective for The Overlook. Cariou's gravelly voice gave Bosch's dialogue readings an edge to them especially when Bosch was irritated with the youth and inexperience of his new partner.

What I Learned As A Writer: The Overlook provides a unique opportunity to learn from a professional writer in his prime. That is, if you have access to the novel as well as the original New York Times version. I have both and I read a few chapters, side by side, and made comparisons. It was fascinating. Things Connelly left out of the NYT piece (because of word count constraints) he fleshed out in the novel proper. There were passages where only one word was changed. I actually got the impression that the NYT version was a rough draft. Much like Springsteen does in his concerts, he sometimes considers the album versions of his songs to be rough drafts. If anyone wants to compare the two, go on over to the New York Times website and conduct a search for it. It's still there. Put both versions side by side, examine and study the differences, and ask yourself why Connelly made certain changes. It's a wonderful insight into the mind of a professional author and it's surely will help you become a better writer. It has for me.

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