“I have an ego, I’ll tell you I’m pretty talented as a writer but that is only a portion of what needed to happen to me,” Connelly says, with the gravelly voice of a police desk sergeant.
“To me, it’s more like I worked hard, I surrounded myself with smart people who had a long-term plan for me, and then I had some lucky breaks.”
Connelly has published 33 books, selling more than 74 million copies worldwide, four million of them in Australia. As he tells it, his first stroke of luck came at the end of a decade-long struggle to write while working the crime beat at the Los Angeles Times.
Two early manuscripts went straight to the bottom drawer. The third introduced his loner gumshoe and Connelly sent out a letter and sample chapter to 12 agents. He told himself he’d accept the first agent who called him back. The callback proved one smart agent.
“He said, ‘I think you have the making of a very long and successful career so we don’t want to rob the bank with the first book.’ So it was ‘don’t be greedy now, we’ll be greedy in ten or fifteen years’.”
The Black Echo went on to win an Edgar Award for best first mystery in 1993. Connelly sold a modest 12,000 books and off the back of its critical success secured a two-book deal. The strategy paid off.
Connolly’s second piece of good fortune came a year later, when former President Bill Clinton was snapped carrying the third book in the Bosch series, The Concrete Blonde, weeks before its release. “Him reading my books was in 160 newspapers. You can’t buy that kind of attention.”
Connelly has penned a book a year ever since that, his work ethic waking him at 4am this same morning to write four pages of his next book. Self-discipline is the key, he says. Even on vacation in a favourite spot on Lake Como, Connelly takes work with him.
“There’s no such thing as writer’s block in a newspaper office” he says. “I did that for 14 years so I can write.”
After a Dymocks literary lunch appearance the next day, it’s a short stop in Melbourne, then 48 hours in New Zealand and back to Los Angeles to film the final episode of the sixth season of Bosch. Connelly is the show’s executive producer and occasional writer, having “paid a lot of money” to buy the rights to his first four books back from Paramount.
Connelly prefers to write with a beginning and an end already formed in his head, filling in the middle as he goes. The Night Fire, his latest release, sees Bosch working a cold case with Renee Ballard, a tough-talking, tenacious Los Angeles detective, closely modelled on Mitzi Roberts, the Los Angeles Police Department detective who tracked down America’s most prolific serial killer who later confessed to the killing of 93 women. Roberts has been a consultant for Connelly on his books for 10 years and his next podcast recalls her dogged pursuit.
In The Night Fire Harry Bosch is now 70, semi-retired, walking with a cane on a reconstructed knee. No prizes for guessing who is Bosch’s heir apparent.
“I’m not going to kill him or anything like that,” Connelly says. “I know he doesn’t exist but in a literary sense, he’s meant too much to me. Over the years I’ve put him through too much turmoil and trauma to turn around and kill him. He ages in real-time, he’s facing that wall of reality, how long and realistically can he go on doing what he is doing. So he is closer to the end than the beginning.
“In this book, you can see something being set up where he can play a role as a mentor with someone he’s identified as having the same fire he has and the same sense of mission and the same relentlessness. It’s going to lead to Ballard taking over.”
Over the years I’ve put him through too much turmoil and trauma to turn around and kill him.
Michael Connelly on Harry Bosch
Connelly knows Rockpool well, having eaten here four other times on other book tours.
“I often commit the sin in that I like my steak medium-well,” he says. “Real connoisseurs of steak would say you are killing the flavour but I grew up in a big family and my parents overcooked everything. I don’t like blood in my steak.”
Connelly selects wagyu bolognese for entree – without cheese – and pronounces it tasty. Given Connelly’s preferences, our white-jacketed maitre d steers him to the fillet “minute-style” drizzled with cafe de Paris butter.
Our dishes come with sides of sebago potatoes sauteed with wagyu fat, garlic and rosemary, a tossed salad with palm sugar vinegarette and mixed greens with olive oil and lemon.
A glass of bubbles comes with our $150 a head set price Cup menu. Too late, I discover that Connelly has a white grape allergy. Bourbon whiskey is his thing. Like Bosch.
Connelly’s fictional detective is a deeply principled Vietnam veteran who spent the war as a “tunnel rat” chasing the Vietcong and pursues justice with equal vigour in the City of Angels.
“He’s the synthesis of all I knew as a reader. I’m a writer because I was a reader. I’ve a journalism degree, a creative writing degree. That didn’t teach me anything. I was reading good crime novels, I was reading Raymond Chandler.”
While studying building and engineering at the University of Florida, Connelly saw Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Long Goodbye.
He bought every one of Chandler’s novels. “I stopped going to classes and read them all. I liked the idea of building stuff but I was taking classes about seven different kinds of cement,” he says.
His dad had been accepted to Chicago’s Institute of Art but couldn’t attend, instead taking a job in construction to raise six children. He didn’t object to Connelly switching studies, dying shortly before the publication of Connelly’s debut. “There was a family reunion because we knew he had cancer and his time was limited,” Connelly says. “My lucky break was that I happened to be with him with my five brothers and sisters when I got a call from the New York that my agent had just sold the book.”
On one of his first days as a reporter in his native Florida, Connelly was sent to the port where a worker had fallen into an oil container. “I happened to be near the stretcher when the coroner was examining the body and manipulating his head. I remember being sickened by that. “
Connelly and two co-writers at the Orlando Sun-Sentinel were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for a searing account of the final moments of the passengers of Delta flight 191, a domestic airliner that crashed near Dallas-Fort Worth airport in 1985. It was his ticket to Chandler’s “big, sordid, dirty, crooked city” and a job with the Los Angeles Times.
There, he worked the crime beat for three years before striking a deal with his wife, Linda, to write crime fiction at night: “She probably thought I would do that for a couple of years, but it ended up being ten before I finally got a book published.”
Connelly reported the riots that erupted after a jury acquitted officers of the LAPD of charges of excessive force in the arrest and beating of Rodney King. It was the biggest moment of his reporting career and the only time he ever felt truly in danger. Posted to the very place where Rodney King had been pulled over by police, he was surrounded by an angry mob and saved only by a stranger in a t-shirt who grabbed him, helped him to his car and disappeared.
That night he called in reports of looting and arson and found himself behind the barricades of the police station, where the acquitted officers had been assigned, a bus barricading its entrance. Some of his books draw from his memories of the riots.
Six weeks after quitting journalism to write full time, O.J. Simpson led police on a low-speed chase along the Los Angeles freeways shortly before his murder arrest.
Connelly remembers standing on the porch of his home high in the Hollywood Hills looking out over the city as the helicopters followed Simpson home. Awaiting the fugitive was a massive scrum of reporters, including Connelly’s replacement. “I thought, I could be here being a full-time novelist or I could be there, and I’m glad I was here, and I sincerely meant that.”
He forks a chocolate millefeuille, chasing the praline cream between the layers of puff pastry.
At 63, Connelly scoffs at the idea that he’s the kind of writer who dies at their laptop. His next two books explore the backstories of ancillary characters, the reporter Jack McElvoy and Mickey Haller, the maverick defence lawyer Matthew McConaughey played in The Lincoln Lawyer.
Never the type of writer who spruiks political messages, McElvoy gives him an opportunity to mount a defence of the profession he admires.
“If there is any message out of it it is the value of good reporting and how it is important in society,” he says. “I can’t speak for what’s going on here, but in my country the trust in the media is being basically sabotaged by this repeated offensive where if people in power don’t like the news, they say it’s fake news . . . and it’s working.
“Almost 50 years ago the media pretty much brought down a corrupt president and the media was exalted for that, it drew people into that world, that’s why I became a reporter, and 50 years later if a corrupt president is impeached nearly half the country will not believe that it was deserved and they will believe it is a media-organised coup. That’s how far we have come.”
Rockpool Bar and Grill, 66 Hunter St, Sydney.
Monday to Friday, 12 noon – 3pm; 6pm – 11pm;
Saturday, 5.30 – 11pm;
Linda Morris is an arts and books writer at The Sydney Morning Herald