Best L.A. Novel Ever: Michael Connelly's The Black Echo vs. Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, Round 1
L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading check out:
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: The Tournament Brackets
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: More Matchups
If detectives Harry Bosch and Philip Marlowe ever met, the chasm between the two would probably prove insurmountable. They would begrudgingly admire one another but come to blows, separated by the emotional and political realities of their times.
Noir usually involves a protagonist who strives to break away from his rotten past -- but is hopelessly dragged back into the mire. Former Los Angeles Times crime reporter Michael Connelly created Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch in his blockbuster first novel The Black Echo as a gentler, less tragic anti-hero. The Black Echo was published in 1991, the height of the worst crime real-life L.A. had ever seen. Against that backdrop, Harry is the righteous cop who cares.
When Raymond Chandler published The Big Sleep in 1938, he gave us Philip Marlowe, the cynical anti-hero who on occasion, gruffly, lets on that he's got a heart. Like the smog-shrouded, ocean-poisoned L.A. in The Black Echo, Marlowe's L.A. is filled with decay and hard cases -- characters Chandler dreamed up even as the real L.A. struggled to escape the remnants of the Great Depression.
Despite the books' similarities, there is one major difference. Marlowe's emotional underpinnings are hidden from us. He's a man of mystery lacking an origin story. We readers provide Marlowe with a misty back-story filled with defiance, romance and tragedy. But Vietnam War vet and LAPD detective Harry Bosch hands us his maverick soul on a platter. During his nightmares, we see his secrets -- born in the subterranean tunnels of 1970s Vietnam, where, as a "tunnel rat," Harry hunts the enemy in the dark.
In real time, Bosch tries to solve an L.A. bank heist and two murders, apparently pulled off by former Vietnam tunnel rats. But Harry has bigger problems -- he's an LAPD outcast, illegally spied on by Internal Affairs goons out to ruin him. In a classic Connelly role-reversal, Harry surprises the goons at their stakeout, handcuffs them and informs them he's got enough evidence to bring down LAPD's brass and "throw in the mayor, too."
One handcuffed Internal Affairs officer says, "Bosch, you ought to get your fuckin' head examined." Bosch, who in fact has a thick military psychological profile, responds:
"Matter of fact, I have had it examined. ... And I would still rather have mine than yours. You'd need a proctologist to check yours out."
In the end, we want to befriend this lonely, violent, vulnerable man driven by a passionate integrity -- maybe listen to some jazz at his cantilevered home hanging precariously over a canyon in the hills.
Marlowe won't give up his true self like Bosch does, so we snatch bits of it where we can -- as Marlowe drifts deep into two apparently related deaths, a missing persons case and the possible kidnapping of a casino king's beautiful wife.
Along the way, Marlowe meets the unforgettable grifter Harry Jones:
He was a very small man, not more that five feet three and would hardly weigh as much as a butcher's thumb. He had tight brilliant eyes that wanted to look hard, and looked as hard as oysters on the half shell.
The Big Sleep is dominated by a rich oil family whose neurotic daughters are obsessed with their lives. Almost every other Chandler character is out for himself. (Spoiler alert! Skip to the end) But in a key scene, the cowering Harry Jones risks everything for another -- his new girl, Agnes. Marlowe listens from a hiding place as a thug named Canino interrogates Jones. The murderous Canino demands to know where Agnes lives -- Agnes knows the secret location of the casino king's wife.
Harry knows Canino will murder Agnes, so he provides a fake address. When Canino hands Harry a drink to thank him and show "no hard feelings," Harry drinks it down. Harry knows it's poison -- he has killed himself for Agnes.
In Marlowe's subsequent soliloquy, the hard-boiled detective gives us a rare glimpse into his good-guy values.
"Well, you fooled him Harry," I said out loud, in a voice that sounded queer to me. "You lied to him and you drank your cyanide like a little gentleman. You died like a poisoned rat, Harry, but you're no rat to me."
Which of these must-reads is the best L.A. novel? A slight edge must go to The Black Echo. Michael Connelly invented a protaganist who comes at us in the flesh, becomes our friend and won't let us go.
WINNER: The Black Echo