A few years back, I bought a mystery by Michael Connelly called Chasing the Dime. I’m pretty sure I never read it, but the other day when I was looking for something to read, there it was on my shelf.
Turns out it’s not a Harry Bosch novel (though an old case of Bosch’s is referred to, sort of but not quite peripherally). The viewpoint character is not a cop or a lawyer, he’s a genius biochemist named Henry Pierce.
My first thought was, “Oh, this is Connelly’s modern take on the amateur sleuth sub-genre.” Amateur sleuths (the prototype is Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple) tend to be found in the “cozy” sub-genre, not in Connelly’s two-fisted, tension-filled corner of the mystery universe, so this could be interesting.
I’m now 3/4 of the way through the book, and it has now become apparent that this is not an amateur sleuth story at all. Henry Pierce is being set up to be convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. Dark forces are at work. But that’s not what I wanted to comment on.
The problem with the story is that Pierce keeps acting like an idiot. We’re told he’s a Stanford grad. Not only is he a genius biochemist, he also has enough business smarts to be running his own company with more than 30 employees. He reads patent documents on his lunch break. And yet, when confronted with indications of criminal misconduct, he does everything backwards.
He’s drawn into the mystery by the fact that his new phone is suddenly ringing off the hook with calls for a hooker. The number is on her web page, but somehow it has gotten reassigned to him. This, in itself, is highly suspicious, for two reasons. First, the phone company doesn’t usually reassign numbers for a few months after the old account has closed — but more significant, why was the old account closed? The hooker is missing and has quite likely been murdered, but she seems to have disappeared quite suddenly: Her house has been abandoned for a month or so, but the rent has been paid and the power hasn’t been shut off. So how did her phone number happen to get reassigned?
He locates her house (on his own initiative, which pretty much undercuts the idea that he’s being set up by a business rival — he didn’t have to go snooping around). The back door is unlocked. He goes in. He leaves fingerprints all over everywhere. He steals her personal phone book.
Before long, again on his own initiative, he has located the apartment where she meets her customers. There’s a mattress on the bed, and it’s soaked with blood. At that point he calls the police — and then he lies to them. He doesn’t tell them about stealing the phone book. He makes up a bogus story about how he located the apartment, and stumbles over the details. In the police interview, he blurts out (apparently due to some sort of childhood trauma), “It’s all my fault.” So naturally, the police think he’s the killer. If they had any evidence, he’d be in jail, and the business coup he’s about to pull off would fly straight into the dumper.
He has now (3/4 of the way through the book) discovered that while his car was parked outside the murder apartment, somebody broke into it and slipped a key to a storage locker into it. The obvious deduction is that whoever did it wanted the police to search his car, find the key, open the locker, and … well, we’ll see. What do you want to bet the woman’s body is in the storage locker? The thing is, the locker was rented in Henry Pierce’s name (evidently using a copy of his driver’s license) six weeks before, at about the same time the hooker vanished. So it’s beyond doubt that Henry is being set up, by someone who has done quite a lot of advance planning.
But does Henry think of this? Does he immediately phone his high-priced criminal defense attorney and say, “Hey, I’ve just found something that seems to indicate I’m being set up — we need to hire a good private eye to unravel this”? No, he does not. He gets in his car, goes to the storage locker place, and shows his driver’s license to the woman behind the counter. As I write this, he is about to get in the elevator to go up to the locker. Alone. After making sure the woman behind the counter will recognize him in a lineup.
The guy is a blazing moron. And because of his incompetence, the story is more annoying than gripping. Sure, I’ll finish reading it. There are at least four dandy suspects who might be the mastermind. But the mastermind’s evil plan only works because Henry is a dumb bunny. To the point where he has already been badly beaten up by the hooker’s high-octane pimp for sticking his nose in where it doesn’t belong.
And that doesn’t make sense either. The pimp warns him to mind his own business and not inquire into the hooker’s disappearance. So is the pimp in on the conspiracy? That’s not credible. If Henry were a sensible lad, he’d heed the pimp’s advice and never waddle any deeper into the trap, so if the pimp were in on the conspiracy he would just lay low and let Henry blunder around. But if the hooker was actually killed by the hidden mastermind and the pimp has nothing to do with her presumed death, why does the pimp even care what Henry is up to? No, it’s just a muddle.