Monday, October 4, 2010

In the Spotlight: Michael Connelly's The Black Ice

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Many crime fiction authors go in and out of fashion; some, on the other hand, create enduring characters that get and keep our interest, and don’t seem to get “stale.” One of the most enduring of these characters is arguably Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. So let’s take a closer look today at one of Bosch’s early outings, The Black Ice.

The Black Ice begins on Christmas night, when Harry Bosch hears a report on his police scanner that a body has been found in a sleazy, cheap Hollywood hotel. Bosch is annoyed that he didn’t get a call about the body since Hollywood is his territory. Feeling left out of the “loop,” Bosch goes to the scene and discovers that the dead man has been tentatively identified as Calexico “Cal” Moore, a detective who’d been a part of a special anti-drug squad. It seems that Moore has committed suicide. At first, that theory makes some sense, especially when it’s strongly hinted that Moore had “crossed” – gone “dirty.” But soon, the forensic evidence suggests that Moore might have been murdered. Bosch wants to investigate, but he’s distanced as far as possible from the case. In fact, he’s given eight other cases left unsolved by a fellow police officer who’s taken a stress-related leave of absence. When Bosch discovers that one of those cases may be related to Moore’s death, he’s convinced that there’s more to the case than a cop committing suicide because he’s “crossed.”

Bosch has a personal interest in Moore’s death, too. He had arranged a meeting with Moore to get some information on a case involving a drug-related death. At the time he’d felt that Moore was holding something back. Now, it seems that case, too, is related to Moore’s death. The more Bosch looks into the case, the more strongly he believes that Moore was murdered and that Moore’s murder had to do with the illegal smuggling of “black ice” – a potent mixture of drugs – from Mexico. When he finds out that the source of the drugs is the same town in which Moore grew up, he decides to find the answers he’s looking for in Mexico. So Bosch heads south, much to the consternation of his superiors, who want the Moore case quashed, and the DEA, who don’t want him really involved. In the end, Bosch finds out the surprising truth about Cal Moore and his death.

One theme that runs throughout this novel is the effect of the past on the present. Moore’s past, in particular, is central to the novel. As Bosch searches for answers in the Moore case, he comes to believe that the more he knows about Moore, the closer he’ll get to the truth. He finds out as much as he can about Moore’s childhood, his time at the police academy and his time on the Los Angeles police force. As Bosch finds out new information about Moore, the reader learns, bit by bit, about the kind of person Moore was. Each piece of information that Bosch gets shows him that Moore’s background has a lot to do with the decisions he’s made and with his death.

Bosch’s own past has also affected him, and we see this in the novel, too. Bosch served in Viet Nam, and his wartime experiences affect his reactions to the investigation, to some of the climactic moments in the novel, and to Moore. Bosch’s family background also affects him, and we learn about this as well. He’s the illegitimate son of a prosperous lawyer, and never actually met his biological father until just as the old man was dying. Most of Bosch’s growing-up years were spent in foster homes or reform schools. Those experiences have profoundly affected Bosch’s attitude towards the past, towards others and towards Moore, and we learn about them bit by bit, as the novel moves on. Connelly uses flashbacks to tell some of Bosch’s story, and weaves those flashbacks into the narrative. So as Bosch examines Moore’s past, he also examines his own.

Another element we see in The Black Ice is the geography of the area. The story begins and ends in Los Angeles, and we get a real sense of the city in Connelly’s description. Here’s just one example:

“Bosch decided to take the long way down out of the hills, driving on Woodrow Wilson until it crossed Mulholland and then taking the winding route through Nichols Canyon. He loved the views of the hills covered with blue wisteria and violet ice plants, topped with aging million-dollar homes that gave the city its aura of fading glory.”

Bosch also spends a very eventful few days in the twin border towns of Calexico, California and Mexicali, Mexico. Here’s a description of the town of Mexicali:

“The boulevard was lined with old shops and industrial businesses. Their pastel-painted facades had been darkened by exhaust fumes from the passing river of metal and it was all quite depressing to Bosch…He noticed several men, many wearing straw cowboy hats, standing in the circle or leaning against the base of the monument. The stared into the sea of traffic. Day laborers waiting for work.”

Possibly the most compelling element of this novel, though is the character of Harry Bosch. In fact, the novel is as much about the unfolding of Bosch’s character as it is about Calexico Moore. Bosch is a complicated person who seems to be a study in contrasts. On one hand, he is reflective:

“He [Bosch] went out on the back porch and sat and drank and thought about things until early into the morning hours. The glow of the fire across the pass was gone. But now something burned within himself.

Calexico Moore had apparently answered a question that all people carry deep within themselves – that Harry Bosch, too, had longed to answer: I found out who I was.

On the other hand, Bosch is also a man of action. He gets a rush of adrenaline-induced excitement, for instance, while he is breaking into a building where he suspects some illegal activity is going on. He wants to be involved in a DEA bust of a Mexican drugs ring, and gets the same rush again, on the night the team moves in on the ring.

Bosch’s personal life is also complicated. He himself knows that he’s lonely. He lives in a house up in a canyon with no-one but a semi-feral coyote for company. He even describes himself as hollow:

He had learned to fill that hollowness with work. Sometimes with drink and the jazz saxophone. But never people. He never let anyone in all the way.”

And yet, we can also see that he would like to share himself with someone. In The Black Ice, for instance, he has relationships with two very different women and in those relationships, we can see how a big part of Bosch would like very much to let his guard down. However, his dedication to the job, his determination to put things right, and his own personal demons make that difficult.

The complex character of Harry Bosch and the Southern California/Mexico setting are woven throughout this novel, and the novel’s focus on the gradually-evolving story of Cal Moore keeps the plot moving. But what’s your view? Have you read The Black Ice? What elements did you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 11 October/Tuesday 12 October – The ABC Murders – Agatha Christie

Monday 18 October/Tuesday 19 October – Gallows View – Peter Robinson

Monday 25 October/Tuesday 26 October - While My Pretty One Sleeps – Mary Higgins Clark


  1. I don't remember the details of this book, but I do remember one thing: It was great! Nice pick for a spotlight book, Margot!

  2. Alan - Thanks :-). It's a clear example, in my opinion, of why Connelly is still as strong now as ever.

  3. I'm often critical of books, shows and movies based in Mexico because they have such stereotypes that are often incorrect but I'm sure this one's great. I like the excerpt you put there. I'll put this one on my TBR.


  4. Clarissa - I know just exactly what you mean about stereotyped depictions of a place. But having been to the Calexico/Mexicali area, and the part of California that lies in between L.A. and Calexico, I can vouch for the fact that it's pretty authentic. It doesn't sugar-coat the area, but it also isn't stereotyped.

  5. I haven't read any of Michael Connelly's books. I have been looking forward to your spotlight on this book to get a feel for his writing. This is going on my 'wish list' and it sounds like all of the books featuring Harry Bosch would be good. Thanks for this insight into a interesting book.


    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - Harry Bosch really is an interesting character, and Connelly certainly paints a vivid picture of life on the underside of Hollywood. He also paints a fascinating picture of police departmental politics. One of the most interesting things about Bosch is actually that despite some of what he sees, he remains determined to do the right thing, even though what's right is not always clear.

  7. I just heard from the store that the book is being delivered to me today or tomorrow. It would be fun reading the book, and then revisiting your Spotlight feature.

  8. Rayna - Oh, I hope you'll enjoy it! When you have finished the novel, I do hope you'll share your thoughts about it.

  9. What a wonderful post, Margot, it reminds me (as if I needed it) of why I love this author, and his wonderful depictions of Bosch, LA and "the blue religion". Thank you.
    By a strange coincidence the book I am currently reading is Black Ice by Leah Giarratano (no definite article), which is, er, very different.

    But these extracts and summary/analysis of The Black Ice just makes me want to go back and start Connelly's books right from the beginning again! (The first was The Black Echo, I think maybe this one is the second?)

  10. Maxine - I'm so glad you enjoyed this post :-). I have to say, I'm a fan of Connelly and Bosch, too, so I couldn't have imagined this Spotlight series without including at least one of the Bosch novels. And right you are about the first one - it was, indeed, The Black Echo. You know a character is well-drawn when you want to jump into the novel and really meet him face-to-face...

    That is an odd coincidence that you're reading Leah Giarratano's novel. I'll be interested in your review of that one. I confess I haven't read it yet, but I am very interested to hear whether it's anything like her Vodka Doesn't Freeze.

  11. Although I have not read this book, Bosch is certainly one of the great inventions in crime fiction. He seems to be able to create great plots, characters and atmosphere and not every writer can pull all of that off.

  12. Another excellent 'Spotlight' Margot. May I suggest if you can include a link listing them all for an easy access.

  13. Patti - You are so right about Bosch! He really is one of the finer creations in the genre, and one of the most durable. You're also right about Connelly - I want to be him when I grow up ;-).

  14. Jose Ignacio - Why, thank you! And I will be happy to create links to the novels I feature. Thank you for the terrific idea; I am flattered that you think this is a good feature.

  15. I just wanted to tell you that I am reading Black Ice and loving it. Normally, I gallop through mystery/ suspense novels because I want to know who dunnit. But in this case, the book is so well written, I am savouring every paragraph as I read.

    I'd come up Harry Bosch in your quiz, and when I started reading, I seemed nothing at all like him. Then came the bit about him defending Poter to 'Pounds' and did I recognize myself- that is just the sort of "stupid" think I cannot help doing.