The Dark Hours is Michael Connelly’s 36th novel, the fourth featuring LAPD late-shift detective, Renée Ballard. In it, Ballard investigates two crimes with the help of Harry Bosch, former LAPD homicide detective, now private investigator. The first crime involves a series of rapes by two males dubbed “The Midnight Men.” The second involves the murder of Javier Raffa, a former gang member who went straight as a car mechanic.
The plot begins in the waning hours of December 31, 2020. As per usual for the date, the LAPD is out in force looking for drunk drivers and worried about people shooting guns in the air to celebrate New Year. That ballistic tradition is what provides cover for Raffa’s murder. But Ballard is also out on patrol because the Midnight Men tend to commit crimes at midnight on holidays.
Looming over these investigations is the growing distrust of cops because of the George Floyd murder and the social unrest it spawned, as well as the anxiety produced by nearly a year of the COVID pandemic. A recurring theme throughout the book is that cops are burned out and unwilling to do anything more than the barest of reactive policing. This frustrates Ballard to know end, who—like Bosch—believes that justice must be done for victims.
Additionally, the closer Ballard gets to the perpetrators, the more she puts herself in personal danger from them. That danger is paired with hostility Ballard endures from colleagues who have it out for her for one reason or another. By the end of the novel, it’s an open question whether Ballard will stay true to an LAPD that doesn’t show good faith toward her.
The Dark Hours is best characterized as a police procedural. Connelly leads readers through Ballard’s investigation as it unfolds, explaining specific techniques detectives use to collar criminals. This keeps readers turning pages to find out what happens next, but it also risks getting boring at parts. Connelly is a master of this form, but I did not find this particular novel to be his best effort, so four out of five stars for me on this one.
However, what keeps me coming back for more is the way that Connelly has created an entire “universe” around the LAPD. At the center of that universe is Harry Bosch, but Connelly has written outstanding novels around characters who live and work in the same milieu, often interacting with Bosch or one another. These include “Lincoln Lawyer” (and Bosch’s half-brother) Mickey Haller, journalist Jack McEvoy, former FBI agents Rachel Walling and Terry McCaleb, and Ballard herself.
As a series-novel fan, the benefit of this “universe” approach is twofold: First, it leverages your interest in one character to introduce you to new ones. If you like Bosch, you’ll like Ballard. Second, it means the series retains your interest as characters age and retire. The Black Echo, Connelly’s first novel featuring Bosch, appeared in 1992. Given that the novels are roughly contemporaneous to their publication date, this means Bosch has aged 30 years since we first met him. The kind of physically demanding exploits he pulled off earlier in his career simply are no longer possible. Rather than stop writing about Bosch entirely, however, Connelly simply moves him off center stage and keeps him as a secondary character.
Connelly’s “universe” strategy looks brilliant, especially when compared to Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels or Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. Both Bosch and Longmire are Vietnam vets, but while Bosch has sensibly retired, Longmire is still working into his 70s. Similarly, Reacher is 61 and has been effectively homeless for 25+ years, but he’s still going at it full strength. Connelly realizes that to retain their realism, his novels must account for age. By contrast, Johnson’s and Child’s novels increasingly strain my willing suspension of disbelief by making old guys do stuff young men who find very difficult.
So, while I’m giving up on Craig Johnson and Lee Child, I still hold out hope for Michael Connelly. The Dark Hoursmay not be his best Renée Ballard novel, but the “universe” is still well worth exploring.
Michael Connelly, The Dark Hours (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2021).
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