Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Burning Room by Michael Connelly Review

Several years ago I read an article by the brilliant Nicholson Baker who was writing about traditional paper books vs ebooks. He was heavily on the side of paper books but he mentioned that he did stay up reading The Lincoln Lawyer in the dark on his phone using the Kindle app because he didn’t want to turn on the light and wake his wife - he had to finish it no matter what! 

That convinced me to check out The Lincoln Lawyer and he was right, it was amazing! Suddenly I had a new favourite writer and I picked up the next Michael Connelly I could find: The Brass Verdict. Again, it was great and I was introduced to a new character, Harry Bosch, who I began to read about in Echo Park, which might be my favourite Connelly book. 

I ended up doing something I almost never do and read seven or eight Connelly books in a row before stopping - after the great ones I found came the dross and eventually I realised I’d burned through the good and went elsewhere to other writers. I returned here and there for the new books - Nine Dragons, The Reversal - but they weren’t as good and after The Fifth Witness, which I couldn’t bear to finish it was so bad, I gave up on Connelly for good. 

Until now. Three years later and I thought it might be worth checking in with Connelly again - maybe he’d gotten the crap out of his system and he was back to producing quality thrillers like Lincoln Lawyer/Echo Park? I was wrong. He’s remained as bad as I remembered. 

In one of the later Bosch books I remember Harry talking about retiring, and maybe he did, so I was shocked to see he’s still working in the LAPD! How old is he now, 80-something? Wasn’t he ‘Nam? So apparently Bosch can’t retire because Connelly can’t come up with another wafer-thin character. Harry’s now working cold cases, which is what ancient cops do, investigating the case of a mariachi who was shot ten years ago and only recently succumbed to his injuries. 

This leads to an even older case dating back twenty years which involves bank robbers, an orphanage fire, and a grudge from his new partner, Lucy Soto, who coincidentally happened to be the sole survivor of the fire. 

I don’t know about you but that “story” doesn’t grab me. It feels like background detail to a sub-plot rather than the main for a 400 page book! Connelly does his level best to ensure no excitement is gleaned from this case as Bosch and Soto look through stacks of old paperwork, interview former cops and witnesses, and basically twiddle their thumbs the entire time. Every aspect of their procedures are described in tedious detail by Connelly. 

Bosch can be an interesting character, like in Echo Park, but here he’s a complete blank. He’s an experienced cop with know-how and nothing else. He doesn’t offer, personality, character, clever dialogue, or much of anything. He plods through this police procedural with zero charisma and total wonder from this reader as to why anyone would feel any connection to him. Not that any of the other characters are much better but the central character ought to be the focus for a reason. 

I’m not one to say that the ending is critical to the success of a crime novel, but the ending to this was particularly terrible - and the “journey” of the novel itself was so uneventful and worthless that if the ending had read like Connelly had made any effort, it might’ve been slightly better to read. Without giving too much away, Bosch meets a character who he thinks dunit and another character says something like “You don’t think he did it did you?” and Bosch says no - and then at the end it turns out he did do it! Connelly chose the most obvious and least satisfying conclusion to his novel. What happened to his imagination!?

If you’re paid by the word, or quantity, of a manuscript over the quality, you’re called a hack writer, and the way Connelly grinds out these awful novels year after year, same page length, same bad stories with the same tired character, I’d have to say that nowadays he fits the bill. The Burning Room is one of the dullest crime novels you’ll ever read. The fact that this is labelled a “thriller” is a joke. Connelly is worth reading but I’d seek out Echo Park and The Lincoln Lawyer over his latter day drek.

The Burning Room

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