Michael Connelly: A Crime Reporter at Heart
When Michael Connelly is in the mood to write, he steps into his Tampa home office, turns out the lights, pulls the blinds and hangs a "Do Not Disturb" sign that he swiped from L.A.'s swank Chateau Marmont.
Attention, hotel staff: He'll need a new sign soon. It's getting plenty of use.
- Scott Bowles, USA Today
Connelly, one of the most prolific and popular crime writers in America...
Michael Connelly Profile
Scott Bowles - USA Today
LOS ANGELES — When Michael Connelly is in the mood to write, he steps into his Tampa home office, turns out the lights, pulls the blinds and hangs a "Do Not Disturb" sign that he swiped from L.A.'s swank Chateau Marmont.
Attention, hotel staff: He'll need a new sign soon. It's getting plenty of use.
Connelly, one of the most prolific and popular crime writers in America, returns today with The Reversal (Little, Brown, 400 pp., $27.99). It continues the darkened-alley sleuthing of his most enduring characters, Los Angeles Police Detective Harry Bosch and crack defense attorney Mickey Haller, who also star in their own series of novels.
At the same time, Lionsgate is producing a film based on Connelly's 2005 novel The Lincoln Lawyer, which reached No. 2 on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list. Matthew McConaughey and Marisa Tomei star in the story of a lawyer (McConaughey) who practices out of the back of his Lincoln Town Car. It's due March 18.
Like many of Connelly's stories, The Lincoln Lawyer is based on a real person, an actual encounter the author had with an attorney he met at a Dodgers game. And like all of his stories, he worries about how it will look on film.
He rarely has been happy with the result. Connelly, 54, has optioned, by his estimate, at least 10 books into screenplays. He hasn't cared for any of them. And he secretly loves the trade that betrays him (he watches Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye for underbelly inspiration).
The public, too, has been indifferent to the only adaptation that has made it to the big screen, the Clint Eastwood-directed Blood Work in 2002. That $50 million mystery, in which Eastwood starred as profiler Terry McCaleb, took in only $26 million.
Connelly, though, has reason to be optimistic. He says he's more confident in this screenplay than any. The Reversal has received some of his best reviews. And, paramount to any writer, he's in the zone with his next book, spending more days than usual in that cramped office, with a projector screen, more than 500 books and a lamp that stays off when he's writing; he prefers the glow of the laptop.
"I don't think the words have flowed this easily before," Connelly, a former police reporter, says of his upcoming legal thriller The Fifth Witness, a Mickey Haller stand-alone out April 5. "I'm writing the longest book of my life — I'm already at 497 pages. But you really can't stop when you feel you're on a roll."
Struggles with the screen
Writer's block has never been a problem for Connelly, who is on his 38th book, including The Reversal. His books have been translated into 35 languages, and he has nabbed more than a dozen mystery-writing prizes.
"A lot of homicide detectives I know really like Connelly's novels," says crime novelist Miles Corwin, whose books include The Killing Season and Kind of Blue.
"It's not just that he gets the facts right that appeals to them," Corwin says. "He goes beyond that. Connelly seems to know what motivates them, what drives them, how they think, how they approach cases and suspects."
Connelly remains a police reporter at heart. Though he created every character in The Lincoln Lawyer, he seeks out no stars during his visit to the set and calls no meetings as he and his wife, Linda McCaleb, walk nearly unnoticed behind stages and klieg lights. This is his fourth time on set, yet few seem to recognize him.
"One of the beauties of being a writer," he says, grinning, over coffee. "You can walk around the world pretty unmolested."
His name may become more of a household one if Lincoln and Reversal come together like Connelly's writing rhythm. He has met with screenwriter John Romano (Nights in Rodanthe) and says he's more at peace with letting the story go.
"I know it's a different way to tell a story," Connelly says. "My stuff isn't precious. But I see choices I wouldn't make."
Again like a reporter, sounding a lot like one who never could hide his disdain for a contentious editor. Connelly bounced around as a police reporter in Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale after graduating from the University of Florida in 1980.
He had no plans to be a novelist, let alone a crime writer. His first crime story came as a high school English assignment. He called it The Perfect Crime, about a killer who had plotted, well, the perfect crime. The twist: The story was written in the first person by an imprisoned murderer.
"My mom was thrilled," says Connelly, who had planned to follow in his father's footsteps as a property developer. "I didn't want to be a writer at all until I got to college, but she knew something early on."
Still, no one could have predicted Connelly's real-life brush with crime that would mark his career. Shortly after writing that story, Connelly was walking from his work as a Philadelphia hotel dishwasher when he saw a man throw something into shrubs.
He walked to the hedge and found a gun wrapped in a towel. He brought police to the scene, though the man was gone. The incident marked Connelly's first time in a police station and would become a template for the writer who worshiped Raymond Chandler novels and the Miami Herald stories of legendary police reporter Edna Buchanan. Buchanan added to her fame in his eyes with a lead about a would-be gunman shot dead at a fast-food counter: "Gary Robinson died hungry."
The styles became part of Connelly's. Like Chandler, he enjoys speaking in the first person. Like Buchanan, Connelly can be dry and brutal.
"The first time I'd eaten at the Water Grill," he begins The Reversal, "I sat across the table from a client who had coldly and calculatedly murdered his wife and her lover, shooting both of them in the face."
After working the cop beat for three years at the Los Angeles Times, Connelly acquired a taste for the city's underside and wrote The Black Echo, his first novel featuring lone wolf detective Hieronymus Bosch, named for a 1500s Dutch painter.
"I knew it would be obscure, but I loved his work," Connelly says. "His work is like a world gone wrong. It's about the wages of sin."
So, too, is Connelly's work. The Reversal puts Bosch and Haller on the trail of a child killer.
If he's worried about getting the green light on another novel, Connelly need not be. Already, his former paper is gushing. "Thank God for Michael Connelly," a review glowed in the L.A. Times.
"Without him, Los Angeles would just be Houston without humidity, Phoenix with the sea."
That's probably too many superlatives for old-school L.A. tough guys like Bosch and Haller — Connelly, too, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Florida and is a regular haunt at L.A. police station headquarters.
He still works the beat, talking with detectives and sergeants, former counterparts on the crime scene tape.
He peppers friends for interesting crimes and updated technologies for his procedurals. But Connelly does virtually no reporting anymore, opting to take his characters into the home office and flesh them out.
Always looking for a story
But even Connelly wasn't ready for the popularity of his maverick hero Bosch.
"It's all a bit surreal," he says. "I've been at Paris bookstores, these little caves, and people will tell me they're worried about Harry. One woman from Tasmania wrote to say the same thing. It's beyond anything I imagined."
Still, Connelly says he remains a journalist at heart, all ears for other people's stories. Though The Reversal was a thank you to readers who supported the characters in both series, personal interactions weave their way into much of Connelly's work.
Kizmin "Kiz" Rider, Bosch's former partner on Hollywood homicide, came from Mrs. Kizmin, who put Connelly's books on her shelves at the tiny Partners and Crime bookstore in Greenwich Village when he was starting out. Ignacio "Iggy" Ferras, another Bosch former partner, comes from an oncologist who let Connelly shadow him on workdays.
And, like that day at Dodger Stadium, when Connelly meets someone with a double-take story to tell, "I know I've got my book," he says. "It may be just a kernel, but that's all it takes."
Near the end of the shoot, a crewmember recognizes Connelly and corners the author with praises until Connelly turns the conversation back to the crewman. Who knows? Maybe he'll show up in a book.
"Ever since I started reporting, I found the best way to find a story is to talk to people," Connelly says.
"That's more interesting to me than anything you'll read."