BY MICHAEL CONNELLY
A few years ago I was on a book tour that took me to Bryn Mawr, on the Main Line outside Philadelphia. I got in early and had some free time before my reading, so I steered the rental car west to the small town of Devon. At least it was a small town in the mid-1960s, when I lived there as a boy with my family.
By staying close to the railroad line I was able to find Highland Avenue without difficulty. It was here that my family lived in a middle-class neighborhood close to the tracks. Our house was a two-story white colonial that my father, a contractor, had designed and built.
I stopped the car in front of 321 Highland, but I didn’t get out. I just sat behind the wheel and looked up at the house for a while. Things had changed about the place, but many things were still the same. My eyes were drawn to the upper window that belonged to the bedroom I had shared with one of my brothers.
It was in that room that I would lie on the top bunk at night and look out through the window. I could see the lights through the woods across the street and hear the rumble of the freight trains that intermittently chugged by. I could also cast my eyes into the front yard and, through the shadows of the night, make out the mouth of the tunnel that was down there. The tunnel that would often invade my dreams as a boy. The tunnel in which I believe Harry Bosch was born.
The house was on a piece of sloping land, which meant that when I visited friends who lived behind us, I had to go out the back door and climb a steep hill to get to their yards. If I went out the front door to the street, the lawn dropped down into a gulley that led to a brick-lined drainage tunnel that went under Highland Avenue and into the woods across the street. The tunnel was old and filled with mud and fallen brick-and-mortar rubble. Gnarled roots had broken through from overhead and crept down like hands ready to grab you. Spiderwebs clung to these roots in silvery patterns that caught the light that leaked down from above. The tunnel smelled as damp as a flooded basement.
It was an unspoken rite of passage in my neighborhood that every young boy had to go through the tunnel. On his own, holding no one’s hand, and not turning back or chickening out. Those who weren’t up to it faced certain peer group banishments and the attendant verbal abuse. The tunnel was the crucible that separated the boys from the men. And nobody wanted to be a sissy.
You knew who had been through the tunnel and who had not. There wasn’t a neighborhood list in which names were checked off. It wasn’t even spoken about. It was just one of the things you knew as a boy in that neighborhood. You knew who wore the invisible badge of courage that would soon open the door to manhood, and who had chickened out.
All memories of childhood are exaggerated in some fashion. It was said that if you were down in there when the trash truck passed by up above, the roots swayed and the tunnel rumbled like an earthquake. It was also said that if you called out from the middle of the tunnel, your voice made a perfect echo in both directions. I cannot be sure of the tunnel’s dimensions, but my honest guess is that it was no more than five feet high and forty feet from entrance to exit. But to a ten-year-old it didn’t matter. Whatever the measurements were, they were the dimensions of fear.
As the time for me to go through drew near, I thought about the tunnel a lot. It was summer, and I knew that before the season’s end, before school began again, I had to prove myself. I had to pass through that tunnel. At night on the top bunk, I could see it down there waiting for me.
The dreams started that summer. Nightmares, really. Intense and dark, with me always alone. It was always the same scene: I entered the tunnel, ready for the challenge, but a few steps in, the brick walls suddenly started to contract. Then, rippling violently in front of me, up out of the mud, a giant tongue lashed about at me.
And then I would wake up just as I realized I had stepped into the mouth of a great waiting beast.
I didn’t have to go to an analyst then or now to know why the dream had manifested or what it was about. It interrupted my sleep often that summer and then disappeared once I made the journey through the tunnel. Strangely, I have no memory of my actual passage. I cannot confirm the spiderwebs. But I can confirm that I made it and, once through, became one of the boys who taunted those who had not yet passed the test.
A few years later, my family had moved from Highland Avenue in suburban Philadelphia to Twenty-sixth Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, as my father chased a series of jobs in the sun. The Vietnam War was the backdrop to life then. I was in high school and not a good student, so I paid attention to Vietnam because I thought it could be my destiny. I remember the principal on the loudspeaker in the classroom calling for a moment of silence and prayer in memory of a former student who had been killed over there. William Fennel. I didn’t know him, but years later I would look his name up on the wall of the memorial in Washington, DC.
One summer I remember my father talking about a man he worked with in a real-estate office. He said the man had to wear a full beard to cover facial scarring from wounds he’d received while he was a soldier in Vietnam. He told my father he had been something they called a tunnel rat. His job was to go into the underground labyrinths where the enemy hid and waited.
The man refused to tell my father all the details, but my teenage imagination filled in the story and was possibly more powerful than the truth. It seemed to me that no war assignment could be more frightening or dangerous than being a tunnel rat. And that summer, after so many years, the dream came back to me. Once more I dreamed of being in the mouth of the underground monster.
Soon after high school I knew I wanted to be a writer. I loved reading detective stories, and those were what I wanted to write. I went to journalism school in college and hoped that a job at a newspaper would teach me the craft of writing while at the same time giving me entr'ee into the world I wanted to write about: the police department. For several years after college I lived and worked in Florida and tried to write a couple of detective novels on the side. They didn’t work. They are about men who specialize in finding runaways but who themselves have run away from things in their own lives. Sure, I learned more about writing and the form of the detective novel as I moved from one draft to the next, but the manuscripts never got past the bottom drawer of my desk. I remain the only one who has ever read them.
At thirty years old, I knew I had it in me to take one more shot at a novel. But I gave myself an ultimatum. If the book didn’t work and was not published, I would shelve my aspirations and rededicate myself to my career as a journalist. In preparation for taking final aim at my goal, I decided to shake everything up in my life. I sent out r'esum'es to California, three thousand miles away, the land of my literary heroes-Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Joseph Wambaugh. It was my conviction that I had to start this novel and stage this part of my journey in Los Angeles.
On the day I interviewed for a job as a police reporter at the Los Angeles Times, the editor handed me the Metro section and pointed to a story bannered across the top. He gave me fifteen minutes to read it and tell him how I would follow up the story. It was a test. He wanted to see how well and how fast I could think on my feet.
The story was about a bold bank heist. Thieves had cleverly used the city’s labyrinthine storm water tunnel system to move under downtown and into close proximity of the target bank. They then drilled through the wall of the city tunnel and dug their own line to a position directly beneath the bank’s safe-deposit vault. They went up and in and spent a night in the vault drilling open boxes and bagging their contents. Then they got away.
Whatever I told the editor must have impressed him. I got the job and moved to Los Angeles. Soon after starting on the police beat, I was allowed to sit in on a detective squad briefing on the unsolved tunnel caper. The case investigators showed photographs that depicted the thieves’ route through the tunnels. It was a dark and shadowy netherworld and eerily reminiscent of the mysterious tunnel I had dreamed of when I was a kid.
My plan had been to spend a year or two getting to know Los Angeles before daring to write about this huge, sprawling, and intriguing place my heroes had trodden and known so well. But that night after the police briefing, I went into the spare bedroom of the apartment I shared with my wife by the 101 freeway and started writing. I’d had an epiphany: I would write about a detective who has a recurring dream of tunnels, who has experience in those tunnels, and whose past informs his present. Now the tendrils of my life were coming together, and I felt that at last I had the true baseline for a character and story that could travel the distance and be published, and live on in readers’ imaginations.
I called him Pierce. I had read something, somewhere, in which Raymond Chandler had described the fictional detective as someone who must be willing and able to pierce all veils and layers of society. My detective would be such a man, and so I called him Pierce.
I wrote with the window open most of the time and wanted to play music that would filter out the disruptive noise of the nearby freeway. I grew up on rock and roll, but as a writer I found that music with lyrics could intrude upon the writing process in its own way. I was going to write about a detective who was alone in the world, so I gravitated toward music that invoked loneliness in me. Jazz. More to the point, the sound of the jazz saxophone. I started with the essentials-John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter-and branched out from there. Along the way I read a piece in Time magazine about a musician named Frank Morgan, a prot'eg'e of Charlie Parker’s who had overcome heroin addiction and imprisonment to record again after thirty years. It was in Frank Morgan’s alto sax that I found the soundtrack of my detective. In his sad but uplifting ballad “Lullaby,” written by pianist George Cables, I discovered my detective’s anthem. For many years I played that song at the start of each writing day.
My detective, like Frank Morgan, was to be a survivor, a man who overcomes his past to ensure his present-and his future. So I chose his music carefully. Pierce would listen to music created by artists who had overcome great obstacles in order to make it. Whether it was beating drug addiction, fighting racism, surmounting poverty, or rising above medical disability, the jazz musicians I drew inspiration from were survivors. And I gave the whole playlist to Detective Pierce.
By day I was a news reporter on the crime beat. By night and weekend I was an amateur novelist trying to finally make it happen. I viewed my day job as research for the night shift. It was as if I were dropping into a gold mine, down a tunnel where I could look for whatever glittered. The sights and sounds of police stations and jails, the cop slang, the internal politics. I would come out each day and bury the gold in my book that night.
Most of the real detectives I knew were veterans of military service, about half of them Vietnam vets. A lot of them smoked, a symptom of the addictive personality I had come to believe was a necessary dimension of a good detective. I remember once sitting at a detective’s desk while he smoked a cigarette, the No Smoking sign hanging on the wall right behind his head. Though I had never smoked myself, I made Pierce a smoker. Though I had escaped going to Vietnam, because the war ended as I turned eighteen, I made Pierce a Vietnam vet. I made him a tunnel rat who still dreamed of the tunnel and was always searching for that light at its end.
The aspects of character continued to fall into place as I wrote the first draft of a novel that would feature Pierce investigating the murder of a man who had been a fellow tunnel rat and who might have been involved in the tunnel heist of a Los Angeles bank.
The real tunnel heist I based the story on took place in 1987, the year I came to Los Angeles. The year is also notable because it was when the novel The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy was published. Although the book impressed me, I was more taken at the time with the author’s history, which I’d read about in a profile in a local magazine. Ellroy’s mother was murdered when he was a boy. He struggled to overcome that life-altering crime, and many other personal demons, enough to write The Black Dahlia and several other novels before it.
I thought the psychology was intriguing. In my amateur analysis it looked to me that Ellroy was working out whatever damage had been visited upon him by his mother’s murder by writing stories about detectives who avenge victims and solve murders-especially of women.
I decided to apply the same psychology to Pierce. I gave him a history similar to Ellroy’s. When Pierce is a boy, his mother is murdered. Since he doesn’t know his father, the crime not only takes away his one loving parent, but also relegates the boy to the world of foster homes and state youth facilities. The boy survives his upbringing and becomes a man in Vietnam, where his job is to go into the tunnels to seek the enemy. From there he comes home to one more flawed institution: the police department. The soldier becomes a detective who repeatedly avenges his mother’s death by solving murders-especially of women.
It is the cornerstone of the character. The trauma of his youth becomes the driving force behind the detective. It is the aspect that will allow every case he takes on to become personal.
I did not know Ellroy when I borrowed from his past for my fictional detective. Years later, though, when I prepared to write a novel in which my detective would investigate his mother’s long-unsolved murder, I sent the author a letter. I explained my story idea to him. I knew that Ellroy had a plan to write a nonfiction account of his mother’s unsolved murder. I asked if he thought my novel would be too much of an encroachment. His response came by way of a late-night phone call several weeks later. “Unfortunately, I don’t have a franchise on murdered mothers,” he said. “Good luck with your book.”
My plan for Pierce was simple. I wanted to acknowledge my mentors and use what they had taught me to mold something that was my own. Chandler, Macdonald, Wambaugh, also James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, and Thomas Harris. I wanted to combine elements of the characters who were outsiders with the traits of those characters who were on the inside. Pierce would be an outsider with an insider’s job. He’d face political and bureaucratic obstacles at every turn. He’d be good at his job but flawed in the way he carried it out. At times he’d be his own worst enemy. He’d feel as though he were always on a solitary mission-alone in the tunnel-even though he might have a partner and be part of an organization that was thousands strong. He’d be a seeker of true justice, not just closure on a case.
Detective Pierce would be built to be as relentless as a bullet, a self-reliant loner who stood alone, who could not be gotten to. Nothing would come between him and his mission, and nothing short of death could stop him from getting the job done.
My goal was to create a character whom readers would find impossible to love on all levels, who in fact was capable of doing things that the readers might find objectionable. But, at the end of the day, my guy would be the kind of detective whom readers would want on the case if it was ever them or a loved one lying on the stainless steel table in the morgue.
I put none of this down on paper. I just carried it in the pockets of my imagination, and when I was ready I set to work on the story. From early on I titled it The Black Echo. Abstract and mysterious, the phrase also conjured up some of the fear I remembered from the fateful passage through the tunnel beneath Highland Avenue.
I caught a lucky break while I was writing The Black Echo. I came across a book called The Tunnels of Cu Chi. Written by Tom Mangold and John Penycate, the book is a harrowing account of the real experiences of the tunnel rats of the Vietnam War. It was only after I read this book that Pierce’s background as a tunnel rat and his recurring dreams fully took shape. That book stayed on my desk as I wrote The Black Echo. And, almost twenty years later, it is still within reach of where I write today. It is easily as scary and claustrophobia inducing as a Stephen King novel. But Cu Chi is true. It makes a ten-year-old’s anxieties about crawling through a forty-foot drainage tunnel seem like, well, child’s play.
When I went to college at the University of Florida, my intention was to major in building-construction sciences. I wanted to be a builder, like my father. But I wasn’t there long before I realized that I wanted to build stories instead of houses. While shifting to journalism and creative writing, I took a good number of art history and humanities classes as well. In one of those classes, the professor had the students examine the work of the fifteenth-century Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch.
Bosch’s work was unfamiliar to me until I saw it in that class. Simply put, it is the stuff of nightmares, an exploration of the wages of sin and of a world gone wrong. The paintings, full of dark, hellish landscapes of torture and debauchery, are about chaos and its consequences. Fires burn out of control in a dark underworld. Birdlike monsters torture and maim the sinners of society. Horned owls sit and judge from the mouths of damp tunnels. Man is depicted again and again as embracing evil, as being the instigator of his own downfall.
Bosch’s masterpiece triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, shows Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in the first panel. In the second is the chaos that ensues from their choosing corporeal temptation over spiritual life. And in the third panel are the tortures of a wildly punishing hell.
Anyone who has taken the time to study the Bosch paintings comes away with an indelible imprint of the work on his or her mind. The mark of a true artist, I believe, is to create something that lives on in another’s imagination. Hieronymus Bosch certainly accomplished this. His work has lived in my imagination from the moment I saw it. After all, I could clearly see a kinship between some of Bosch’s monsters and the behemoth of my own dream.
It was while working on the second draft of The Black Echo that I was reminded of the painter I had studied in college fifteen years before. I can’t remember today what prompted the connection. But some reference to the painter made me remember the class and the paintings. And I was struck by another revelation. After all, what was a murder scene but a world gone wrong? What was a homicide investigation about but chaos and its consequences? In a moment I knew I must change the name of my detective. Whether readers were familiar with the painter Hieronymus Bosch did not matter to me. I was writing about a man who every day ventured into the human abyss, whose job took him across landscapes of chaos and its consequences. I was writing the story of a man who confronted horrific evil among men and who all the while wrestled with his own dark currents. From that day on he became Detective Hieronymus Bosch.
The name Hieronymus is the Latin source of the name Jerome. By that measure, Detective Hieronymus Bosch should perhaps go by Jerry for short. But I went with Harry instead, choosing it as a nod to Dirty Harry Callahan and Harry Caul, two detectives from films that were important to me in my evolution as a storyteller. My hope is that Harry Bosch shares a kinship with those two Harrys, as well as with the characters created by the hugely influential writers listed as inspirations earlier.
With a name, a history, and a mission, Harry Bosch seemed to lack only a code. Every detective, private or public, in the annals of crime fiction has a personal code by which he or she makes a stand. Raymond Chandler wrote an essay about it: “Down these mean streets a man must go…”
I decided to keep it short. I wanted Bosch to have a code that would be telling of his status as someone who for much of his life was on the outside looking in. I wanted him to have a code that would not let him forget his origins and that would plant him firmly on the side of the underdog. I wanted Bosch to operate with a code of conduct and fairness that would not allow him to suffer fools lightly or leave him beholden to the powerful and rich. He would operate fairly and never use his position to his personal advantage. He would understand that he must give his best effort on each case no matter who the victim may be or where the clues may lead.
Everybody counts or nobody counts.
This would be his code.
The creative fulfillment that comes from writing a series of novels with a returning character is that the biography of that character continually evolves. The series moves forward at the same time it moves backward. New cases, new missions, carry the reader forward. But strewn throughout the stories are the glittering nuggets of history that take the reader into the past.
So, too, Harry Bosch evolves. The man built to be relentless and bulletproof now shows he is vulnerable. In recent years he has discovered a daughter, a piece of history that in many ways turns all that came before it upside down. Through her, Harry can be gotten to. It changes things, especially him.
Through fifteen novels I would say that Harry Bosch has mellowed. He is still an outsider with an insider’s job. He still won’t suffer fools lightly or accept bureaucracy when it gets between him and the completion of the mission. But he has a greater sense of himself and more knowledge of human nature. His mission has made him a man who is both hopeful and cynical. He knows what true justice is and has more insight into redemption. He has a better understanding of the frailties that lead to the many different kinds of human corruption.
In Angels Flight, the sixth book in the series, Harry opens a pack of matches and finds a fortune printed on the inside flap. It reads: Happy is the man who finds refuge in himself. For Bosch it is a hint of what is to come. Harry pursues his mission at the same time he seeks refuge and continues to find it in himself. That makes his a biography still in progress.
The house my father built on Highland Avenue may still be standing, but the tunnel is long gone. The day I escaped from the book tour and drove out there, it was the first thing I noticed. The sloping property had been resculpted in the years since my family left. The drainage gulley had been filled and the front lawn leveled. The woods that were across the street were gone as well, replaced by a well-manicured subdivision.
Maybe it’s true that you can’t go home again. But not finding the tunnel that day didn’t bother me. I was thankful for what it had given me. An early test of character and a memory that would live on in my imagination. If I am lucky, the character who came out of that tunnel will live just as long.