Much of the power and richness of Nine Dragons comes from the various ways that Michael Connelly not only tells an exciting tale set in a recognizable contemporary world but also taps into larger-than-life mythologies of character and setting, including several associated specifically with detective fiction. Harry Bosch, the protagonist of Connelly’s long-running detective series, has been established in earlier works as a quirky but archetypal detective. Without being reduced to caricature, he in many ways is a direct descendant of Dirty Harry, himself a descendant of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. All three have become cultural icons of the legitimacy and necessity of combating violent crime with sometimes even more violent justice.
Harry’s full name, Hieronymus Bosch, identifies him with the Dutch painter of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries who is famous for his depictions of the corruption and cruelty of the world. One of the painter’s most well known works, The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1503), is an ironically named piece that includes a nightmarish rendering of the torments of hell on earth. A similar irony is employed by Connelly when he sets some of the most horrifying incidents in his story in a place called the Happy Valley. The detective’s name also invokes the apocalypse that seemed imminent in the earlier Bosch’s paintings. If the world has not yet ended four hundred years later, Connelly’s portraits of contemporary society impart the sense that the danger of apocalypse persists. Connelly’s Los Angeles, a stand-in for contemporary America at large, is filled with crime, violence, and other assorted threats that are concrete and local but also at times cosmic and overwhelming, evocative of an entire world always ready to implode.
There is another reference point for Nine Dragons that is equally evocative and more recognizable to modern readers. The anxieties and mysteries of Roman Polanski’s film Chinatown (1974)deeply influential on modern cinema, fiction, and cultural consciousnessinevitably loom large over Connelly’s story about a Los Angeles detective drawn back to a scene of enveloping and rippling violence that has left its mark on him. This locale, a liquor store, is not literally in Chinatown but is owned by a Chinese man, John Li. Some years ago, in 1992, Li gave Bosch refugeand his last cigaretteduring the Los Angeles riots. Bosch now has an opportunity to return the favor, but in the grimmest of ways: by capturing Li’s murderer, a quest that takes him from Los Angeles and its metaphorical Chinatown to a literal China that is even more menacing and mysterious.
Connelly focuses extensively on Bosch’s investigative methods, some of which are both admirable and problematic. Bosch is intensely dedicated to his cases, in marked contrast to his partner, Iggy Ferras, who seems to be a lesser cop because he has a life outside the job: He thinks as much about his family as his cases. Moreover, his fears sometimes get in the way of his effectiveness as an investigator; he was recently wounded and has not been able to recover from a paralyzing sense of his own vulnerability. Ironically, those concerns link as well as differentiate the partners: Bosch’s family concerns turn out to complicate his investigation enormously, and he too is preoccupied with a sense of his own vulnerability, although this preoccupation makes him not timid like Ferras but impetuous and bold, like the dragon to which he is likened at one point in the story.
Bosch does his best to proceed carefully and without preconceptions, letting the story of the crime scene emerge from a patient examination of all its details. This approach seems to bear fruit as a narrative emerges plausibly connecting Li’s murder to an extortion gang. A surveillance disc shows Li paying off a man later identified as Bo-Jing Chang, a member of the Chinese Triad. The Triad is a powerful criminal enterprise with an international reach. Chang is arrested but, not surprisingly, is completely silent and uncooperative. The case seems to be falling into a familiar groove, and Bosch remains the patient, analytical, and dispassionate investigator, even when he receives an anonymous threatening phone call warning him to back off.
Everything changes suddenly, though, and Connelly heightens the drama by showing the effect before the cause: Bosch enters the interview room and assaults Chang violently...
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