Crime Week: One’s a charismatic Māori cop who gave us the word “cunthooks”. The other’s a Vietnam vet turned maverick LA detective. Ngaio Marsh Awards judge Stephanie Jones on why she loves them both.
On a recent Saturday evening, the author Michael Connelly sat inscrutable on a stage at AUT while a devoted reader (front row, centre) implored him not to kill off his sexagenarian detective hero, Harry Bosch: “My family says I talk about Harry like he’s my husband, and I don’t want to be a widow.” That drew a laugh from the crowd and a quasi-promise from Connelly that he’ll send his old draught horse out to pasture rather than put a bullet in him.
Sitting to Connelly’s right on the low-rise stage was Paul Thomas, his interlocutor for the evening and the man introduced at kick-off as New Zealand’s Godfather of Crime, which is accurate if you think about him doing with the written word what Paul Sorvino does with a razor blade and a clove of garlic in a jailhouse kitchen in Goodfellas. Our Paul, a polite and generous Don, said nothing as Connelly was drenched in praise and absolutely no one made mention – lustful, fond or otherwise – of Detective Tito Ihaka.
Ihaka – charismatic, profane, and built to smash bad guys, corrupt colleagues and most normal human boundaries – may be the greatest New Zealander who never lived. He first hove into view in 1994’s Old School Tie, and assumed a more prominent role in Inside Dope and Guerilla Season, all republished as the Ihaka Trilogy in 2009.
Ihaka’s origin story is more opaque than that of Bosch, the natural brainchild of a prolific reporter working the crime beat of newspapers in Florida and Los Angeles – but a speculative take might be that he emerged as a philosophical fuck-you to the ‘roid-rage Red Squad energy of 1980s New Zealand.
Having ended Ihaka’s first run by dispatching him to Whangaroa Harbour in the company of an alluring CIA contractor, Thomas revived his frontman and started a new trilogy with 2012’s Ngaio Marsh Award winner Death on Demand and 2014’s shortlisted Fallout. A lazy analyst could call Thomas New Zealand’s Connelly, but in sense and sensibility, not to mention pure tradecraft of the kind honed in newsrooms, there’s little separating the two.
Indeed, if you uploaded the DNA of Hieronymus Bosch and Tito Ihaka – those names! – into one of the open-source databases that’s used to lasso retired serial killers, you’d probably find they have a common ancestor. Bosch is as attuned as Ihaka to the criminal mind and allergic to professional dysfunction, though it’s hard to imagine him using, even when extremely provoked, the singularly Ihakan epithet “cunthooks”.
He made his debut in Connelly’s first published novel, The Black Echo, in 1992, and steps out once more in The Night Fire, Connelly’s thirty-third thriller and the third to feature Renee Ballard, who works the “late show”, the midnight-to-dawn shift that makes standard daylight feloniousness look like a rough morning at kindy.
The introduction of Ballard is partly homage; years after leaving the Los Angeles Times Connelly remains close to many cops, and Ballard is based on Mitzi Roberts, the LAPD detective who in 2012 nailed the serial killer Samuel Little. She’s also a practical necessity owing to Connelly’s fidelity to aging Bosch in real time. With earlier novels pegging him as a Vietnam vet born in 1950 there’s no unringing the bell, and Ballard gives the now retired Bosch access, motivation and companionship in his new line of cold-case investigation.
In The Night Fire this has the pair following strands of multiple crimes: the arson-related death of a homeless man; the murder of a judge; a years-old unsolved killing of a drug dealer and the concurrent mystery of why Bosch’s recently deceased ex-colleague sat on the case for years, not wanting it solved.
As a palate cleanser, there is a sidebar involving a sexually deviant hot prowler on her university campus of Bosch’s daughter, Molly, whose unsteady relationship with her father is handled with great delicacy by Connelly. The Ballard-Bosch dynamic is deeply filial, affectionate and overlaid with professional admiration and mild envy. It has evidently energised the author; the two were introduced to one another in Dark Sacred Night, published less than a year before The Night Fire.
They agree on the same principle of criminal justice: Everybody counts or nobody counts. This philosophy has them hunting every killer, no matter how unworthy or devalued or marginalised the victim, because it’s not for them to judge. There’s a thick vein of unsentimental humanity running just beneath the surface of Connelly’s work, and it’s detectable in Thomas’s too. By the time Ihaka returns to Auckland from provincial exile in Death on Demand, he’s had a couple of edges smoothed off, but he’ll still call out a colleague for his casual racism, and he remains an instinctive rule-breaker, though a rational one – he lets loose a serious predator in exchange for useful information, and knows the decision could end up being his professional undoing if one of the demented ladder-climbers he’s surrounded by gets hold of it.
Thanks to years of hyper-popularity Connelly has his own library of stories, and he trotted several out to his rapt Auckland audience, like how his star sharply ascended when Bill Clinton was photographed with one of his books (The Concrete Blonde, because of course), and how Mickey Haller, Bosch’s half-brother and the ‘Lincoln Lawyer’, began to gestate when a guy at an LA sports event told Connelly he was a criminal defense attorney who worked out of the back of his car.
Haller rolls in and out of The Night Fire with characteristic flair, cajoling Bosch to tread a wafer-thin ethical line in service of one of his clients. Chekhov’s gun is fine and all, but Connelly’s way is to insert little subtextual landmines beneath the big noisy plot and rig them to explode in subsequent novels. Bosch’s feeling of conflict over helping his brother is one such device.
The domains of Ihaka and Bosch, Auckland and Los Angeles, are alike in some essential ways – sprawling, culturally diverse, and with such notoriously chaotic traffic patterns it’s a mystery how they function at all. Most importantly, each has a stinking underbelly from which the authors can drag any number of deviants – which is ideal, because neither traffics in the tedious or picayune. There’s a point to every passage and every conversation, and both steer clear of leaden exposition – no mean feat given how the protagonists carry their histories, fireman-like, into each new setting.
In The Night Fire Bosch does so in quite corporeal terms – the leukaemia he is being treated for is traceable to a long-ago case he closed involving stolen radioactive material, and now he’s going for worker’s comp. The back catalogues of both are aging well in the woke new world, though the changing times mean the n-word, casually dropped in its full form by an older white American in Inside Dope, is lately written as “n—–” by Connelly.
Certainly, Ihaka is the less PC – to use an utterly meaningless term – of the two, and more of a comic figure than Bosch. He’s a living outrage who is variously described as oafish, anarchic, unkempt, unruly, intemperate, unorthodox and, in the opinion of one crim, possessed of “deep-seated antisocial tendencies”. The tone of the Ihaka series, particularly the 2010s installments, often suggests Thomas’s affection for his man and amusement at his antics, as if they weren’t all his idea.
What of Ihaka and Bosch as the new decade beckons? It’s our loss that Thomas is not as prolific in the genre as Connelly, but few are, and even fewer warrant such close attention and repeat reading. Thomas says the next Ihaka novel – in the works but not imminent – will likely be the last.
Meanwhile, Ballard feat. Bosch is a set-up of endless possibility which allows Connelly, like Rankin with the compulsorily retired Rebus, to apply creative workarounds to the awkward fact that his guy is now a civilian pensioner who has no business at crime scenes. Maybe Bosch is going very, very gently into that good night or maybe it’ll be sudden – either way, spare a thought for the Devoted Reader.
The Night Fire by Michael Connelly (Michael Connelly, $36.99) is available from Unity Books.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.