One morning in the autumn of 1990, a Los Angeles Times reporter named Mike Connelly greeted a certain city editor with a request: He wanted a private meeting.
Connelly covered the cops for the Times’ satellite office in the San Fernando Valley. The city editor feared the kid reporter was about to give notice.
Instead, Connelly said: I wrote a book.
The editor (this writer) thought: Good. He’s staying. Everyone writes books. No one sells ’em.
Connelly: It’s going to be published.
Editor: That’s nice. Vanity press? Who?
Connelly: Little, Brown. They gave me a big advance if I will write a second book with the same main character.
Editor: Second book? How did you manage that?
Connelly: I took the names of five agents out of Writer’s Market. One of them sold it in two weeks.
Editor: Two weeks? Two weeks?
Connelly wanted to keep the matter confidential. But he slipped up later, talking to a fellow reporter. When he walked into the newsroom the next morning, dozens of reporters and editors greeted him with long applause.
Michael Connelly is making the rounds of book signings in Southern California this month with his 21st novel, Nine Dragons. It’s another in his Harry Bosch series, and it takes the tough LAPD detective on a harrowing journey to Hong Kong, drawing from the Bosch back story Connelly has meticulously rendered for two decades.
Connelly’s own journey from kid reporter to the pinnacle of his genre also has a back story, which the writer recalled last week over breakfast at Broadway Deli.
The years have grayed Connelly’s hair some and he has grown a beard. His glasses are smaller. But little else has changed. He remains shy, occasionally speaking through his hand or averting his gaze. He still has that soft Philly accent. His eyes still deaden when he remembers a powerful motive that drove the writing of that first novel.
The kid was told he couldn’t write.
The judgment came from a top editor in the Times’ main office at First and Spring, where every reporter soldiering in a Times suburban edition in the late 1980s aspired to work. Connelly had gone downtown for a brief tryout and was told by a ranking editor afterward that he would never make it to the mother ship.
His writing wasn’t good enough.
The comment still irks Connelly. “You wouldn’t think that negative motivation could do something like that, but it did,” he recalled.
Told he couldn’t write, an angry Connelly plunged ahead with writing his first novel, The Black Echo.
As Connelly remembers it, the plot of that novel also sprang from the Times. Connelly had flown to L.A. for his job interview in August 1987. “I often wonder how my life would have turned out different if I hadn’t come to L.A. on that one, particular day,” he said.
The hiring editor handed him that day’s local news section and asked for his thoughts about the lead story. The article detailed how thieves had tunneled underneath a Bank of America branch near Beverly Hills, then drilled upward into the bank vault. The story became the outline of The Black Echo plot.
Over the years, Connelly has drawn from the Times even more deeply for his two novels whose chief sleuth is a reporter, not detective Bosch. Scarecrow, a New York Times bestseller published earlier this year, includes not only snippets of Times history but also, as with many of his novels, inside jokes directed at former colleagues from the newspaper’s Valley office.
Between bites of eggs and hash browns, Connelly remembered with a deep laugh the night one of those colleagues, Times reporter Greg Braxton, asked for a favor. Connelly gives many characters in his books the first or last names of former Times co-workers. In 2002, at a screening of the film version of Connelly’s Bloodwork, a former co-worker took Braxton aside. “Ever notice that we’ve always got just bit parts in these books? We’re the cops who fell asleep and blew the stakeout.”
After the movie, Braxton raised the complaint: Mike, we like being in the books. It makes us feel special. But we were wondering … do you think we could ever solve one of these things?
Connelly broke into a broad smile, fixed his antagonist with a stare and answered in a clear, even voice: “That is not going to happen.”
Not long after selling that first book back in 1990, the reporter who couldn’t write was asked to solve a mystery. The Scene of the Crime bookstore had moved from the Valley to Wilshire Boulevard. Then, without notice in the summer of 1991, the store closed. Connelly, still working for the Times, was assigned to find out why.
He went to the store. The door was locked, but he saw people inside. He knocked. They wouldn’t answer his questions.
He returned to the newsroom and pounded out a story faster than most people can read. His story took readers with him step by step as he sought answers. “You could strike a match on my resolve,” he wrote, his story deftly mimicking the prose of Raymond Chandler, echoing lines drawn from memory, on deadline.
Plainly, the kid couldn’t write.