Picked up the new Michael Connelly novel (a two-fisted Harry Bosch LAPD mystery) at the library. It’s called Nine Dragons. It’s a page-turner, no question. Lots of danger and intrigue. Mysterious Chinese gangs. Guns blazing, knives drawing blood.
And then you get to the very end, after Harry Bosch has left a trail of bodies in Hong Kong, and you find out that the entire Hong Kong angle of the plot was purely a coincidence. Nine people are dead because of something that had nothing whatever to do with the case that Harry was investigating in L.A.
Sorry, Michael. You’re off my A-list. This kind of thing is pathetic. There’s no excuse for it. Yeah, you have to keep the reader guessing. An unexpected reversal at the end of the book is always fun. But when, 1/3 of the way through the story, Harry receives two dire threats in quick succession, and then at the end it turns out that the two had nothing to do with one another … no. That doesn’t work.
I’m going to spoil the book for you here. The reason there are nine people dead in Hong Kong, including Harry’s ex-wife, is because their 13-year-old daughter has staged her own fake kidnapping in order to get her father to fly from L.A. to Hong Kong. Now, granted, 13-year-old girls are somewhat impulsive and don’t always recognize the consequences of their actions. But even so, this stunt is pretty far over the top for a girl who shows no other signs of mental instability. In fact, she seems to accept her mother’s death with remarkable equanimity. The gut-wrenching pain of a girl who is carrying the terrible secret that she has just caused her mother’s death simply isn’t there. She sheds tears, takes a long shower, and then she’s fine.
Not only that, but in the course of staging the hoax, she and her friends rent a room in a seedy hotel to shoot what is supposedly to be a ransom video. They had no earthly reason to rent a room for this childish hoax. The only reason they did it was so Connelly could add to the plot suspense.
The Hong Kong gore-fest is the middle half of the book, and it’s the only part that has any action or suspense. We’re led to believe, and indeed Harry assumes, that a Los Angeles branch of a Chinese gang sent word back to Hong Kong that Harry’s daughter was to be snatched in order to get him to back off instead of going ahead with an investigation. Now, on any rational level this makes no sense whatever. The guy Harry has in custody as a suspect in L.A. is a low-level bagman for a routine shakedown, and seems to have popped a storekeeper who was late making a hundred-dollar payoff (which makes no sense either — and indeed, he’s innocent).
Why it would be so important to free the bagman from custody that word would travel like lightning up the gang’s chain of command clear to Hong Kong, where somehow the gang already knew how to locate one particular policeman’s daughter and was able to arrange a kidnapping on extremely short notice — I’m not a cop, but I can tell that that makes no sense. And when we reach the end of the book, we learn that, indeed, that wasn’t what was happening at all. But clear through the book, that’s what Harry Bosch, a 25-year-veteran of the LAPD detective squad, thinks is happening. Bosch is behaving like an idiot. Okay, he thinks his daughter is in mortal peril (as, indeed, she is, thanks to her own screwball impulse), so he acts a little rashly. Even so, as a plot device, it’s a dead fish.
The actual culprits in the original murder are just as inexplicable. A young Chinese man and woman, brother and sister, are frustrated because their father won’t sell his liquor store in the ghetto. The family also owns a much more upscale store in a suburb, and the store in the ghetto is losing money, but out of pride and stubbornness Dad won’t close up shop in the old family store. So they convince the assistant manager at the upscale store to murder Dad, with the promise that then they’ll be able to open another new store and make him manager.
I’m not saying this could never happen. One trouble is, Connelly doesn’t give us any psychological insight into these people’s character that would make it believable. They seem like a perfectly nice middle-class Chinese family, up until the point when we learn that they’ve engaged in a bizarre plot to kill their own father. (Ross MacDonald didn’t make this kind of mistake. His middle-class and upper-class murderers were visibly unbalanced. You could understand how they might be that screwed up.)
Another issue is that the clues that lead Harry to unmask the murderers are so gosh-darn far-fetched. The dying man does something utterly bizarre — he puts an ejected shell casing in his mouth, though he has already been shot through the heart. And Harry happens to notice a college diploma hanging on a wall. If it weren’t for those two details, the murderers would never have been brought to justice. Certainly not through anything resembling actual police work.
Also, in the last chapter, Harry’s flaky partner manages to get himself killed, for no particular reason. It’s just a sort of childish impulse on Connelly’s part — “Gee, can I manage to add a little more blood and gore? Oh, sure.”
This is not the first time Connelly has fleshed out a novel with a long and intricate red herring. I believe it’s in Trunk Music that Harry Bosch goes roaring off to Vegas on what turns out to be a wild goose chase. But when the wild goose chase is prompted by a pure coincidence, when it leads to mass carnage, when the results of the mass carnage seem to occasion so little reaction on the part of the character who provoked it, and when the real murderers are so implausible, it’s pretty obvious Connelly is slipping. The perils of success, I suppose.