THIS HAS BEEN THE SUMMER OF BONES. ALICE Sebold's The Lovely Bones, told from the point of view of 14-year-old Long Beach murder victim Susie Salmon, has overshadowed every other book of the season with 1.3 million copies in print at last count. But let's not forget Michael Connelly's earlier City of Bones, which begins with a yellow dog named Calamity showing up at his master's house in the Hollywood Hills with a human bone in his teeth. This is how New Year's Day starts in the Hollywood of detective Hieronymous "Harry" Bosch, a place where people name a street "Wonderland Avenue," then proceed to bury the bodies of little children in vacant lots. It's a level of grim absurdity that makes Sartre and Schopenhauer look like disgruntled schoolboys.
The bones turn out to belong to a little boy, and they bear scars from a lifetime of abuse. They have also been in the ground for 20 years. The powers that be want to bury the case, but Bosch, who grew up on the streets of Hollywood himself, identifies with the lost, battered boy and feels the need to solve this one. Harry is haunted by the dead boy -- but he's haunted by every case in this long-running series. In truth, Harry functions more like a shaman putting the spirits of the dead to rest than like a detective out to solve a crime.
Halfway through the book, the woman Harry is involved with says, "I think it's kind of amazing . . . Those bones being up there all of these years and then coming up out of the ground. Like a ghost or something." Harry's reply is: "It's a city of bones. And all of them are waiting to come up."
The hero of eight of Connelly's moody detective novels is a twitchy, melancholy character named for the painter of tormented hell-scapes in which human beings suffer seemingly endless -- and pointless -- pain and ignominy. Bosch's call-girl mother, like all the women in Connelly's books, is fiercely intelligent, with a wry sense of humor -- qualities that don't appear to be very helpful to any of them in navigating a treacherous and indifferent city. When he was 12, Bosch's mother was murdered, her body left in a seedy Hollywood alley. Harry grew up in state facilities, coming of age just in time to ship out to Vietnam, and returned to become an LAPD homicide detective working the Hollywood division, where he occasionally finds bodies in seedy back alleys, or buried on hillsides.
The mother's death informs the son's adult life, and it's a motif that runs through all of the Bosch novels. In one of them, Harry actually solves her murder, but the clouds do not clear, and Harry's life goes on. Instead of running out of steam with the solution of its core mystery, the series seemed only to deepen, proof that murder, and all other mysteries, are ultimately insoluble. The power of Bosch's character comes from the fact that he continues to try despite the knowledge that the rules of his universe are absurd.
MOST OF US, WHEN WE THINK OF HOLLYwood, think of a young city, a sunny place that's constantly reinventing itself, a place where heartbreak comes from failing to get the part, and where the "ruthless" people all wear Armani. In Connelly's Hollywood, the existence of that world is hinted at, but it's one Harry seldom visits. In the process of carrying out his job, detective Bosch lives a great portion of his life in the darkness of the L.A. underworld, and this makes him as much a citizen of it as the perpetrators he chases. When he clocks out, he must become human again, and sometimes he can't quite muster the energy to fully do so.
Bosch spends most evenings alone, drinking beer and listening to jazz. He has a partner, Edgar, who sells real estate on the side, has little interest in police work, and who occasionally betrays him -- a typical human creature. He has girlfriends, most of whom are guided more by their own problems than any interest in Harry himself. He has no friends. He is rude, occasionally violent, always sullen and truculent with superiors, and he smokes wherever and whenever he likes, especially if someone in the room objects. It's no surprise that Clint Eastwood chose to bring Connelly's other hero, FBI agent Terry McCaleb, to the screen in Blood Work -- Harry Bosch is a character who takes several volumes to get to know, and even then you can't quite figure him out. In Connelly's last book, A Darkness More Than Night, McCaleb spends some time with Bosch, and decides he doesn't like him.
Bosch doesn't have enough charisma to qualify as an antihero. But what he does have is a tentative, searching humanity that makes him endlessly compelling and complex. He doesn't occupy the gray area between right and wrong, he is the gray area between right and wrong. If the genre created by Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald is called noir, Connelly's genre should be called gris.
PRIVATE DETECTIVES LIKE CHANDLER'S Philip Marlowe and Macdonald's Lew Archer are a different breed from Bosch. They are poet-detectives, spinning crime into mythology. They travel alone, they think alone, and they speak with an authorial voice, in the first person. Connelly tells his stories in the third person, a technique that levels the playing field between his heroes and his villains, and leaves his character somewhat in the position of a rat in a maze -- in an experiment where all of the scientists have left the building.
When Harry pays a visit to a forensic anthropologist who works at the La Brea Tar Pits, he is shown the caved-in skull of a woman recently regurgitated by the Tar Pits: a 9,000-year-old unsolved murder case. "Bosch looked down at the skull again. He thought about what Julia Brasher had said about his job, about his taking evil out of the world. What she didn't know was a truth he had known for too long. That true evil could never be taken out of the world. At best he was wading into the dark waters of the abyss with two leaking buckets in his hands."
Bosch eventually solves the mystery of the boy's death, but in the process of doing so, more innocent people lose their lives, or just their souls. The case is "solved," but the gray lesson for Harry is that sometimes doing the right thing is wrong. And heroism is just another form of compulsive behavior.
In Bosch, Connelly has created a character so gratingly real that he's impossible to use up. Still, there are indications in the text that City of Bones may be the last of the series. If so, it seems only just and fitting that Connelly ends his book in a way that leaves the reader more angry and annoyed with Harry Bosch than ever.
CITY OF BONES l By Michael Connelly l Warner Books 464 pages l $26 hardcover