I’m not really a lover of American police dramas, but Connelly’s novel featuring his first female detective, Renee Ballard, is so unconventional in terms of its set-up, so polished and so well-written, that it makes for first-rate reading. The Late Show’s deeply flawed heroine’s career is essentially a coda to that of Harry Bosch. Like Harry, Renee is a dedicated detective with a troubled and lonely personal life. She’s not only battling the demons of her past (notably the death of her father), but she’s also battling the time when she ran afoul of the LAPD bureaucracy and was relegated to the night shift assignment. Renee’s nemesis is Lieutenant Robert Olivas. She has a bad history with him, a history that has landed her on the late show at the Hollywood Division with her new partner, John Jenkins, a 25-year veteran of the force.
Renee lives a transient, troubled life. By night, she sleeps on Santa Monica beach with her beloved dog, Lola. By morning, she surfs as a way to exorcise her anger over Kenny Chastain, Ballard's former partner in Homicide Special Section, who refused to back her up in the face of Olivas’s sexual harassment. Renee has a remarkable capacity for tenderness. She also knows the turf, and she knows LAPD slang. For the moment, she’s happy just to work with Jenkins on the midnight shift, content to move from case to case, from robbery to suicide. After writing up a case of credit card fraud, Ballard finally gets her wish to work a case from beginning to end when she and Jenkins are called to a shooting at a nightclub called Dancers, an underground hangout for Hollywood’s tattooed hipsters and clubbers.
Four men were shot to death while sitting in a booth. Cynthia Haddel, a waitress in the wrong place at the wrong time, was a peripheral victim. After visiting Haddel’s body at the morgue, Renee becomes caught up in an investigation where five people are dead with no suspects and no motive. Traversing the breadth of a smoggy, crowded Los Angeles, Renee goes on the hunt, using her considerable research skills to tie together the incongruent elements of a case that seems to involve gambling, loan-sharking and drugs. A surprising clue is provided by someone whom Renee had long considered a bitter enemy, and a selfie video from a witness becomes central to the dilemma of whether Ballard should find a way to share her information in an investigation headed by the dreaded Robert Olivas, the man who did his level best to drive her from the police department.
While the murders are central in Renee’s mind (as well as a cast of suspects who prove to be unattractive bunch of opportunists), more pressing is Renee’s search for the person who abducted and tortured Ramona Ramone. Transgendered Ramona was unceremoniously dumped and left for dead in a parking lot on the corner of Hollywood and Santa Monica Boulevard. Renee’s desire to take on Ramona’s case is palpable. Viciously beaten, Ramona remains in coma at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center. For the moment, Renee can do little else but photograph the girl’s injuries as she tries to make sense of the brutality and futility of the crime.
Connelly’s strength isn't necessarily his prose; he conveys Renee’s battles in a sort of flat, dry narrative with minimal metaphor, reminiscent of a print journalist’s newspaper articles. Instead, Connelly excels in dissecting the intricate and detailed LAPD procedures and policies as well as keeping the reader focused on the little details of the supporting characters. From Ramona’s difficult recovery, to Jenkins’ struggles with his cancer-stricken wife, to the friendly lawyer who helps Renee profile her main suspect, Thomas Trent, the car salesman who works at an Acura dealership on Van Nuys Boulevard and was once arrested for possessing a set of brass knuckles, Renee descends into something dark and frightening where she’s ultimately forced to fight for her life.
Unlike other police procedurals, the big climax happens in the middle, leaving Renee to spend the rest of the story figuring out the riddle to the Dancer murders. She’s broken and bruised but determined to uncover the murky line between media and a law enforcement. Renee knows there is little cooperation and even less trust with those who chose to guard against the risks of discovery. It’s a titillating, even dangerous mixture that takes Renee to a homeless encampment underneath the 101 freeway then to a porno shoot in the San Fernando Valley. All the while she powers forward, driven by restless internal energy. She’s frustrated that she doesn’t have a shred of direct evidence linking the murders at Dancers to what she thinks might be a bent cop. As she tries to remember every detail of every move she has made, she still cannot locate the land mine she apparently stepped upon.
Renee’s frustration and pain are shared by the reader as she faces the depressing realization that her investigations are stalling on all fronts. With Ramona unable to identify her attacker, Renee begins to feel like a “prison assassin with a shank.” Violence and deceit are everywhere, reflecting a real-world version of the LAPD’s underworld where Renee is forever tainted by her past. No matter, though; even as we get swept up in Renee’s life, there’s hope for tomorrow. I’m sure Connelly is probably going to invest in another episode of his gutsy, embattled, heroine with many more nerve-wracking conflicts to come.