Michael Connelly Retraces the Mentor’s Steps
Whatever skills, aptitudes and worldviews we have now, I don’t think any of us can say we’ve developed them all on our own. Virtually everyone has or had some form of mentor, a person (or people) who guided us through the world, sharing the wisdom they have personally accrued over the years. For Harry Bosch, this person was John Jack Thompson, a man who taught him how to fully give himself to any case he is working on… and in Michael Connelly’s The Night Fire, Thompson passes away, leaving his pupil a great unsolved mystery.
Once again combining the efforts of Bosch and detective Renee Ballard, the story begins with Harry inheriting a book from Thompson’s widow. Within its pages a case is contained, one which seems to have stoked Thompson’s fire for decades after he left the force: the unsolved murder of a rather troubled young man. Deciding he’s going to need some help on this one, Bosch shares his discovery with Ballard and asks her to take a look at the files.
Though she is tasked with solving some other cases, Ballard can’t turn away from Thompson’s murder book, and dedicates her personal time to the study of the file. Not only does she find some inconsistencies in the investigation, but a dark and creeping suspicion begins to rise around Thompson’s intentions. Did he really steal the book when he retired to try and crack the case on his own? Or was he actually trying to prevent anyone else from solving it? The deeper they dig, the the more their bond grows in the face of the dark twists awaiting them.
The Slow-Burning Thriller
When we generally think of police thrillers and such, we often imagine fast-paced and relatively action-packed stories which keep us glued to the pages without much time to process what we are being fed. However, when it comes to Michael Connelly, I find his approach to be a refreshing change of pace in The Night Fire, instead electing to build up the thrills and pace of his book around the exploration and examination of evidence.
In other words, The Night Fire doesn’t contain much action in the traditional sense of the word, and as a matter of fact, it didn’t feel as if our characters were facing any sort of danger until the very end of the story. However, what we do have is an abundance of curious bits of evidence making up the links in a long chain of logic, one we are constantly unravelling one tiny step at a time. Personally-speaking, what kept me reading and give the book a page-turner quality was the near-constant focus on the procedural aspect of treating evidence and making deductions based on what it reveals. If I didn’t know any better, I would think Connelly himself was a detective for the depth of the information he provides us with.
Another aspect which helps to keep the book from becoming stale is the presence of multiple other side cases for our characters to solve. Ballard has what seems like an accidental (although suspicious) burning on her hands, while Bosch has to help his half-brother Mickey Haller (from The Lincoln Lawyer) question an alleged self-confessed murderer in a case where things might not be as they seem. Taking breaks from the main story line to see Bosch and Ballard work through smaller and more easily digestible cases creates a very enjoyable pace which ultimately feels fast, despite there not being much action in it.
The Geriatric Blues
With this being only the second book in the series, I think it’s fair for us to re-examine the development of the relation between Bosch and Ballard, and see how their characterizations have evolved from last time. On one hand, Bosch seemed to be made even more vulnerable and clearly-old as he is recovering from a painful knee surgery which requires him to walk with a cane, albeit very begrudgingly. It feels as if Connelly is trying his hardest to drive home the point of Bosch being on his way out now, and no amount of wishful thinking will bring him back to his glory days. Thankfully, his brains still seem very much intact, despite the few mistakes he and Ballard make over the course of the investigation.
It is difficult for Bosch fans to watch him fade into the background, but at least we do get a lengthy enough segment focusing on Haller’s court case, a side story Bosch is very much a part of. However, on the whole, Connelly is still trying to pass the torch on to Renee Ballard, and I have a feeling he might be doing so for a fair number of books; though there is a lot of potential in her character, her development is far from being complete to make her Bosch’s successor.
In the previous novel, Ballard was pretty much described only in positive terms and seemed nearly incapable of any wrongdoing. It did work for the previous novel as an establishing act, and I believe Connelly knew we wouldn’t suspend our disbelief for her forever. This time around, she seems to be written in a much more grounded and enjoyable way, presenting her simply as a very hard-working and intelligent cop… who still unbelievably lives in a tent on the beach. As I said, there is definitely potential for her character, but there are definitely a few aspects of it which need to be ironed out further.
The Final Verdict
The Night Fire by Michael Connelly is a strong addition to the Ballard and Bosch series, going a bit deeper into their characterization while having them solve multiple cases, each offering their unique interests and challenges. If you enjoy procedural murder mysteries or Connelly’s writings in general, then I highly recommend you give this book a shot.
Michael Connelly is perhaps one of the most popular modern writers, starting has career when he discovered Raymond Chandler’s writings at his university. To support himself, he worked at the local newspaper while specializing in crime, which shows in virtually all of his works touching on criminal subjects, such as The Black Box and The Lincoln Lawyer.