There is a thick haze of melancholy hanging over crime fiction maestro Michael Connelly’s Desert Star, with the author seeming less interested in plot than in the slowing of his dauntless hero Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch, who is now in his 70s. The main storyline concerns Bosch’s pursuit of his white whale, the unknown predator who committed the Gallagher family murders and buried the father, mother, son, and daughter on the edge of the Mojave Desert (where the desert star flower grows) eight years earlier.
The Gallagher family storyline gives the novel an air of unfinished business, of returning to a time when Bosch was at his most vigorous physically but hadn’t yet amassed all the skills, the sixth and seventh and eighth senses that help the most seasoned investigators distinguish a real lead from a rabbit hole or dead end when all too often they look the same. Those around Bosch are commenting on his mobility, he’s losing his breath going up stairs, and there is a drawer of pills in his house.
But it all starts, in Connelly’s well-honed dual-plotline fashion, with Renee Ballard, latterly a quasi-partner to the retired but still active Bosch, as she leads a reconstituted Open Unsolved Unit and gathers a posse with various law enforcement backgrounds to look into cold cases. It is the city councilman brother of Sarah Pearlman, the victim of a rape-murder in the Hollywood Hills in 1994, who is behind the creation of the new unit, and his influence lends an air of moral flexibility to the proceedings.
In one storyline, there is a likely villain, at least in Bosch’s mind – years ago, when he originally investigated the Gallagher case, he put a mental bull’s-eye on a man connected to the industrial contracting business of the father, Stephen Gallagher, but couldn’t put together enough for an arrest warrant. The Pearlman case is more square-one in nature, but Bosch and Ballard’s offsiders include an investigative genetic genealogist, the kind of scientist for whom virtually no fragment of DNA is too microscopic to yield information.
If Desert Star isn’t the finest or punchiest of Connelly’s recent work, it is nonetheless top-shelf crime fiction, and the sense of a slowing might be output-related: Connelly publishes a book or two a year, on average, and there’s another coming this November. Or it could be just what happens in any superlative series, where there is a deceleration, regathering, or time of reflection before another surge.
It is certainly aligned with what is going on with Bosch, a Vietnam vet born in 1950 and ageing in real-time, according to Connelly, so there is a sense of inevitability about his future – but Connelly did promise at a pre-pandemic appearance in Auckland that he would put his old workhouse out to pasture rather than put a bullet in him.
Unquestionably Bosch’s investigative faculties remain as commanding and valuable as ever, and Ballard, as his partner, ally, and sometime confessor in recent novels, has long since pushed their relationship from mentor and protégé to an independent operator and boss. Ballard is willing to test the boundaries of how they work together, and she sees as clearly as Bosch does how the LAPD chronically falls short on the motto to which Ballard and Bosch hew: Everybody counts or nobody counts.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
Allen & Unwin