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Onyx reviews: The Black Box by Michael Connelly

Symbolically, a "black box" is the kind of clue that can blow a cold case wide open. The analogy is, presumably, to the data recorders sought after plane crashes that can often explain what went wrong. The term also refers to a literal box: the one that contains police officers' handwritten notes pertaining to a crime, often stemming from interviews and witness statements.

In 1992, during the riots in Los Angeles that followed the exoneration of police officers accused of brutality in the arrest of Rodney King, many people were killed. Often these deaths were related to the citywide violence: looters killed by shopkeepers, shopkeepers killed by thieves, etc. However, some people took advantage of the chaos to get away with murder. Because police resources were stretched to the limits, these homicides did not get the full attention they would have received in calmer times. Crime scenes were too dangerous for investigators to linger long. Canvassing for witnesses was curtailed. Bodies were transported in National Guard trucks instead of by a medical examiner, and forensics teams took hours to arrive, if at all. Most of the killings remained unsolved.

On the twentieth anniversary of the riots, during a city-wide effort to close some of those cold cases, a match is made to the bullet that killed a Danish photojournalist. No one knows why the journalist was in that part of L.A., which would have been dangerous for her even without the lawlessness that engulfed the city. Harry Bosch was the responding officer. The woman, who Harry's partner dubs "Snow White," was supposedly in the country on vacation, and no one knows where she was went before traveling from San Francisco to L.A. to cover the riots. Her camera and her notes were never found, and her room was broken into and searched, so it seemed clear at the time that her murder was more than a side effect of the chaos. However, the trail quickly went cold and the single casing Harry discovered at the scene is the only clue.

Harry Bosch is a big believer in momentum. He thinks that cases will die if he doesn't pursue every lead immediately, which makes him relentless. It's also a way for Connelly to apply pressure to the story. Since this homicide happened so long ago, there's no real urgency to get it solved. In fact, his superiors try to discourage Harry from the case. Most of the people killed in the riots were black, so how will it look if one of the few that end up solved had a white victim? That's the sort of issue that caused the riots in the first place.

Harry is also at odds with his new boss, O'Toole, whom they refer to variously as "o'Fool" and "The Tool." The new lieutenant is focused on statistics, so he often exerts pressure to drop cases that don't look like they'll end up in the win column quickly. Harry is working at will, part of the DROP program that allowed him to return from retirement for a few more years. That gives him a certain freedom, but it also provides him with less protection from the department if he gets into a conflict with his boss, which he is bound to do given his history.

The gun that fired the bullet was used in a number of subsequent homicides, none apparently linked to Snow White's murder. A man is in prison for one of the killings, but he claims he was given the weapon by another gang member who is now dead. Harry goes back over the old case files and finds other things that were missed in those tumultuous days and, before long, he finds his black box: the clue that sends him in a new and unexpected direction. He is frustrated by the time it takes to get information from the journalist's relatives and former co-workers in Denmark, and he reaches out to his former lover, Rachel Walling, and others to expedite facets of his investigation.

The case and casework are interesting, and the way Bosch peels away at the layers of the onion to get to the core of the mystery is laid out well. Harry also has time to spend with his daughter and his new social worker girlfriend, but everything—including important discussions about the next step in his relationship with Hannah—is sacrificed in the name of this "hot" cold case. At times, Harry's single-mindedness seems overwrought. 

When the leads point to culprits who live hundreds of miles from Los Angeles, Harry knows his boss will never approve the time and expense required to follow up, so he "goes on vacation," turning into a lone wolf. He identifies the weak link in the case and gnaws at it until something breaks free. However, when he gets into trouble, he has no backup.

Except—he does. Out of nowhere, someone appears to help him in his darkest hour. It's the kind of dramatic trickery that doesn't serve Connelly well. The character's arrival on the scene is completely unmotivated—so much so that even that character can't (or won't) explain it. Perhaps this is a card that Connelly is holding back to play in a future novel. If not, it's weak storytelling that taints an otherwise solid entry in a long-running series. 

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