A Darkness More Than Night
Published by Little, Brown
387 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Life and Death Rituals
Reviewed by Frederick Zackel
Michael Connelly's latest novel is the thriller his readers have been waiting for. Sleek and sharp and fast-paced, it also brings together, Harry Bosch and Terry McCaleb, two of his most vividly depicted heroes, in a life-or-death conflict.
Connelly is on sure footing in A Darkness More Than Night, much more so than he was in his last novel, the stand-alone Void Moon. His stance is surer, perhaps because his storyline follows the classic conventions and because he observes the rituals with greater diligence.
A Darkness More Than Night is about heroes. As any student of mythology can tell you, the hero's job is to fight and (if need be) die for the greater good of his community. This is not a job for the weak of heart. That's why the world has so many of us ordinary people and so few heroes.
Police procedurals, in particular, are about heroes. They are the literal descendants of classics like The Iliad, Beowulf and The Song of Roland. What makes police procedurals different is only that many of our 21st century heroes are deep in their middle age and thus worry about medical benefits and workmen's compensation.
The storyline follows Terry McCaleb, with Harry Bosch popping in and out of the action. An ex-FBI profiler, Terry used to be as angry as Harry; but then he received a new heart and now his family life with Graciela and their daughter CiCi has softened his raw edges. This has served to make him more cautious, given him pause and a chance to reflect on life's mysteries.
McCaleb has set up home on Santa Catalina Island, a mere 22 miles across the Pacific from Los Angeles. This makes him the outsider that the experts can go to when they can't find the answers they need.
The expert in A Darkness More Than Night is sheriff's detective Jaye Winston. She arrives at McCaleb's doorstep with a thick green binder -- a murder book -- in hand. A murder book, McCaleb knows all too well from his past career, is a homicide occurrence casebook.
Winston tells him, "I've got a case here I was hoping you'd take a look at. In your spare time, I mean. I think it might be your sort of thing. I was hoping you'd give me a read, maybe point me someplace I haven't been yet."
Winston's visit is the classic call to quest. She needs to catch a killer and has run out of leads to follow. She needs the hero's help. Time is of the essence, of course. Law enforcement agencies operate on a philosophy of triage. If the killer can't be caught soon, they must move on to other also-urgent cases.
McCaleb has conflicting emotions at returning to the murder game. "He felt a thrill at the possibility of having a part of his old life again. He also felt guilt over the idea of bringing death into a home so full of new life and happiness."
Winston, of course, knows how to tap into his sense of duty: "When they took out your heart, they didn't take out what makes you tick, know what I mean?"
Not surprisingly, in A Darkness More Than Night, the killer is not your ordinary killer.
"McCaleb could see that a length of the baling wire was stretched taut from the victim's ankles, up his back and between his arms, and beneath the lip of the bucket where it was wrapped around his neck. It appeared on first measure to be a ligature strangulation in which the leverage of the legs and feet pulled the wire tight around the victim's neck, causing asphyxia. In effect, the victim had been bound in such a way that he ultimately killed himself when he could no longer hold his legs folded backward in such an extreme position."
The killer leaves a deliberate clue to his identity: he writes in Latin (no less) the phrase "Cave Cave Dus Videt" for the homicide detectives to find on the tape he used to bind his victim's mouth.
Connelly reminds us, "Words from a killer were always significant and put a case on a higher plane. It most often meant that the killing was a statement, a message transmitted from killer to victim and then from the investigators to the world as well."
McCaleb follows the clues and discovers the crime trail he is following crosses the crime path of LAPD Detective Harry Bosch. "Years earlier McCaleb had worked with Bosch on a case, an investigation he still often thought about. Bosch had been abrasive and secretive at times, but still a good cop with excellent investigative skills, intuition and instincts. They had actually bonded in some way over the emotional turmoil the case had caused them both."
Bosch, the main character in many of Connelly's novels over most of the past 20 years, is up to his neck in his own troubles these days. Bosch is the key witness in a criminal trial of a ruthless Hollywood movie director charged with the slaying of an actress whom he killed during violent and kinky sex.
Although both are Connelly's creations, Harry Bosch and Terry McCaleb are kept distinct and different by the author. We clearly see the effect that other people make in each man's perspective on life.
McCaleb is now a family man, with all the accouterments that can mean. Checking his sleeping infant daughter, for instance, means that McCaleb "could feel her tiny heart beating. It seemed quick and desperate, like a whispered prayer." McCaleb can describe his familial duties as "having a gun to your head all the time." Which means, he tells the reader, "I know if anything ever happens to her, anything, then my life is over."
Bosch, on the other hand, is the classic lone wolf, with all the impedimenta that role means in popular fiction. "He was ready, ready to dance with the devil once more. He realized that his mission in life was all about moments like these. Moments that should be savored and remembered but that always caused a tight fisting of his guts." Like all heroes, Bosch lives for the "times he had glimpsed the normally hidden face of the monster."
The first turning point in A Darkness More Than Night is McCaleb's visit to Los Angeles' fabulous Getty Museum, where McCaleb learns how close the 21st century murderer's MO is to the 14th century Hieronymus Bosch's nightmare visions. The killer's profile McCaleb has drawn up from the crime scene reverberates with eerie echoes of the Renaissance painter's work:
The landscapes of misery that unfolded in the pages Penelope Fitzgerald turned were not unlike some of the most horrible crimes scenes he had witnessed, but in these painted scenes the players were still alive and in pain.
McCaleb uncovers how clearly, how uncannily, LAPD Detective Harry Bosch fits the killer's psychological profile. The similarities are indisputable. McCaleb has no choice but to tell sheriff's detective Jaye Winston.
Bosch is the killer McCaleb is stalking.
As the case against Harry Bosch grows and more homicide investigators and the FBI itself are drawn into the case, McCaleb learns Winston has become "a believer" that Harry Bosch is the killer. She tells him of Harry's past, that Harry's mother was a Hollywood prostitute murdered when Harry was a little kid. The murder victim, she reminds McCaleb, had gotten away with murder in the slaying of a Hollywood prostitute. Vengeance completes the profile, McCaleb knows. The evidence is overwhelmingly conclusive.
Then Terry McCaleb discovers that Harry Bosch "knows we're looking at him" as the chief suspect.
As the noose tightens around Bosch, the ex-profiler finds Harry Bosch on board his sailboat in Catalina. Bosch has broken in and has gone through all of McCaleb's papers. He knows all that McCaleb knows. Bosch is now a desperate man. Still, McCaleb is astonished when Bosch tells him, "You missed something." That he is innocent. That he has been set up to take a fall.
McCaleb, for the first time in all his experiences as an investigator, has a murder suspect come to him to help clear his name. Had McCaleb truly missed something, or was this "the last manipulation of a desperate man?"
A Darkness More Than Night has a final resolution that is as sharp and clean as a guillotine's cut, which has not always been the case in Connelly's previous works. The Poet, for instance, suffered from an extra tagged-on ending that diminished the novel's impact. But the final moments of A Darkness More Than Night are both bittersweet and solidly constructed.
Connelly's first novel, The Black Echo, was published only nine years ago. Since then his confidence as a writer has grown. He has never been a lyrical writer and he uses his powers of description sparingly, though often to great effect. He writes of "the shark-gray dawn" over the ocean and that "Hollywood is just street trash with money." But functional, unadorned prose is his gift. | March 2001
Frederick Zackel is a contributing editor of January Magazine.