In his 30th book, “The Late Show,” crime-fiction author Michael Connelly introduces a new character, LAPD Detective Renée Ballard, who works the night shift at Hollywood Station.
Twenty-five years ago, a Los Angeles Times crime reporter published his first novel, a gritty police procedural called “The Black Echo” and featuring a jazz-loving LAPD homicide detective named Hieronymus — Harry — Bosch. For its author Michael Connelly, it was the start of an astonishingly successful new career in crime fiction. This month brings a remarkable milestone: his 30th book, “The Late Show” (Little, Brown; $28).
“I have a hard time believing it myself,” said Connelly, on the phone from his New York book tour last week. “I wasn’t even contemplating [writing 30 books] when I started out on this path, so it’s pretty cool.”
Though Harry Bosch has featured in most of Connelly’s books, he’s introduced other lead characters as well: attorney Mickey Haller (who debuted in “The Lincoln Lawyer”), journalist Jack McEvoy (“The Poet”), retired FBI profiler Terry McCaleb (“Blood Work”), professional thief Cassie Black (“Void Moon”). “The Late Show” brings the debut of a new one: LAPD Detective Renée Ballard, who works the night shift at Hollywood Station — called “the late show” by those who work it.
The inspiration for Ballard, said Connelly, “just sort of fell into my lap.” For his 30th book, written just after he turned 60, he wanted to do “something a little different, maybe challenge myself in some way.” As part of his Amazon series “Bosch,” he came to meet several LAPD detectives as consultants. One of them, Mitzi Roberts, was a veteran of “the late show” and had plenty of stories to tell.
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“I knew I wanted to write about somebody on the late show because it’s so entertaining,” Connelly said. “When you’re a detective on the midnight shift, you don’t have a specialty, you roll on any time they need a detective, whether it’s big or small. That variety really appealed to me.
“The more I talked to [Detective Roberts], got to know her, saw her in court a couple of times, in crime scenes, I was inspired by her personally, because she’s a very determined and fierce detective. Those are the words I was hoping to get into the character of Renee Ballard.”
Ballard shares many of Roberts’ qualities — including, said Connelly, the real-life detective’s habit of going paddleboarding at dawn after finishing her shift, with her dog watching over her belongings on the beach. But the character has her own backstory, one that Connelly says he’s still developing.
“I’d been kind of gathering string, casting a net with her for a few years,” he said, noting that he doesn’t formally outline or write a character biography. “If you read the book, the biography’s really incomplete. I like to seed the first story of a character with what a reader would need, but I want to leave stuff to explore in the future.”
In “The Late Show” we learn just enough to tantalize us about the cool, tough Ballard. She’s in her mid-30s, single, and briefly worked as a crime journalist (shades of Connelly) before entering the LAPD training academy. She’s the daughter of a California surfer father and a Hawaiian mother, but she doesn’t talk much about them. And, though presumably well-paid, she’s essentially homeless, sleeping, by choice, in a tent on the beach, only occasionally visiting her grandmother (whose home is Ballard’s official address). Her closest personal relationship seems to be with her beloved dog, Lola.
“Her job really puts her in the front line of human depravity, the downside of humankind, something you’re exposed to all the time,” Connelly said. “You’re on the midnight shift in Hollywood, you see more than most cops. I think that all plays into this desire to find home, find comfort, when she goes off duty. It leads to the question of, what is home? Does it have to be a brick-and-mortar structure?”
As is his habit for an introductory novel, Connelly focuses “The Late Show” solely on Ballard. “My history is that I will create a character and they will have a book to themselves, and then I’ll integrate the character into the larger world of all my books,” he said. (Look closely, though, and you’ll find a sly peek of Bosch — or, rather, of the TV show named for him.)
He’s thinking, though, that Ballard’s path might soon cross with his other characters. A new Bosch book, “Two Kinds of Truth,” will be out in November, and “I’ve planted a seed in it for a Ballard book to come afterwards,” he said. “If I choose to go in that direction, it would definitely connect the people in the Bosch universe with the Ballard universe. That might bring Haller into it as well.”
These days, Connelly’s doing double duty: writing books, and working on the Amazon “Bosch” series. An executive producer, he spends much time in the writers’ room. “I’m the guy who wrote the book, so I can really decide on my own what my level of involvement will be,” he said. “I’ve chosen to be very much involved.” Season 4 began filming this month, and Connelly hopes to go to “at least five.” He’s also at work on a proposed television series of “The Lincoln Lawyer,” which was made into a theatrical film in 2011. “Things have changed since six years ago,” he said. “TV — that’s where you go now, if you want to tell character stories.”
But he’s looking forward to returning to Ballard’s world, with the blessing of her real-life inspiration, Roberts. “She’s been with me every step of the way, kind of an angel on my shoulder,” he said of the detective. “I think she’s happy with the final version.” Though he’s not certain what his next book project might be, he’s “leaning toward that seed I planted. [Ballard’s] new and fresh in my mind. I’d like to continue that story, filling in some of the blanks.”