Very Quick Review: Terry McCaleb in Michael Connelly’s BOSCH Universe (Orion/Little, Brown)

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I’ve recently been blitzing my way through Michael Connelly’s excellent novels in the “Heironymous Bosch Universe” — those that star the eponymous detective, and also those starring the characters who have cycled in and out of Bosch’s orbit over the course of the series. I tend to focus my reviews on either upcoming, new or fairly-recently-published books. However, Connelly’s crime novels have so taken over my imagination and reading time this past month (eight since the beginning of June), that I decided I should put something together for CR. In this post, I take a quick look at the novels featuring Terry McCaleb.

For those who like to read series strictly in order, the McCaleb novels are #8 Blood Work, #9 A Darkness More Than Night, and #13 The Narrows in the Bosch-verse. There are events in Bosch’s life and career that happen in between, of course, but I don’t think it’s necessary to read them in order for you to enjoy them. (I would just strongly recommend them because they’re excellent reads.)

Blood Work (1998) introduces us to Terry McCaleb: retired FBI profiler, and recent heart transplant recipient. He’s living on his boat, running a charter with his oddball neighbour, and also a little bit bored. Here’s the official synopsis:

Terry McCaleb, one of the most effective serial-killer investigators in the history of the FBI, hunts down his heart donor’s killer.

‘Blood Work’ – that’s what Terry McCaleb used to call his job at the FBI. Eight weeks ago he was a dead man, but now someone else’s heart is keeping him alive. Then a newspaper report of his brush with death brings him an unwanted visitor. Graciela Rivers reveals to McCaleb that the anonymous donor of his heart was her murdered sister, and that the police investigation into the case is going nowhere. McCaleb feels he has no choice but to take on the investigation.

Nothing about the seemingly random killing makes sense. McCaleb realises that someone is watching his every move – someone who has killed before and will kill again…

I really enjoyed this novel. I had initially hesitated about diving into this one, because I was more interested in reading more Bosch stories. Not my finest moment as a reader, but after a few non-starter novels, I decided to get back to Connelly’s series. I was not disappointed.

McCaleb has a different approach to law enforcement than Bosch: he’s far less cynical, and he has more respect for the rules and norms than the LAPD detective. Like Bosch, however, he is a believer in the grind — gathering as much information as possible, and working the case: point by point; fact by fact; loose end by loose end. His physical condition adds an interesting component to the storytelling, too, and is continuously something McCaleb must always grapple with and overcome in order to get the work done. Starting with the death of Graciela’s sister, McCaleb comes to realize that there is something much larger going on, and that the murder may not have been as random as the LAPD believed. Brought in unofficially into the investigation, he manages to draw connections between other killings.

One of the things I liked the most about this novel was the way Connelly kept me watching McCaleb’s actions. The way the novel is written keeps the reader focused on what Terry knows, and what he is doing and thinking. Apparently slip-ups feel natural (if you actually notice them at all — one of which I didn’t really file away), and there weren’t any ridiculous leaps of logic. McCaleb works the problem(s), makes connections, and solves the case. There was not telegraphing or signposting, and instead the plot unfolded perfectly. This is best on display in Blood Work when McCaleb appears to make a mistake during an interrogation. [That’s all I’m going to say about it.]

I blitzed through Blood Work. The final confrontation and conclusion were satisfying.

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McCaleb next appears in A Darkness More Than Night (2000). He comes into contact with Harry Bosch, who is quite central to the plot, as he is involved in an ongoing high-profile murder trial. Journalist Jack McAvoy, the protagonist of The Poet, also makes an appearance. Here’s the official synopsis:

Harry Bosch meets an ex-FBI profiler in one of the most disturbing cases he has faced…

Terry McCaleb’s enforced quiet lifestyle on the island of Catalina is a far cry from the hectic excitement of his former role as an FBI profiler. However, when small-time criminal Edward Gunn is found dead, McCaleb becomes embroiled in a disturbing and complex case leading him to cross the path of Harry Bosch.

This infamous detective has always teetered on the brink of darkness in order to get inside the head of the killer. Is it possible that he has stepped across that finely drawn line and embraced darkness?

I enjoyed seeing McCaleb and Bosch working together and against each other: their styles and approaches to investigations at odds, while simultaneously respecting each other’s intelligence and gifts. As in Blood Work, Connelly keeps us focused on what McCaleb knows and discovers, and the same is true for Bosch. Terry is deeply suspicious of Bosch, because everything points to the fact that he may well have finally, irredeemably, and fatally crossed a line. I very much enjoyed how this novel unfolded, and how Connelly kept me guessing. I wasn’t sure how Bosch would be cleared, even though this novel inspired one of the seasons of the Amazon Bosch TV show. I also enjoyed the use of the painter Hieronymous Bosch imagery. The trial also offers some good commentary on Hollywood trials, and the power of celebrity and success. Another excellent, satisfying conclusion.

In The Narrows (2004), Connelly brings a couple of threads to a close. First, Terry McCaleb’s story comes to an end, as he has passed away. Bosch is approached by Graciela (who married McCaleb between Blood Work and A Darkness More Than Night), and she convinces him that Terry was actually murdered, rather than died from complications of his heart transplant. In addition, the Poet returns after years thought dead…

He’s back… Private investigator Harry Bosch confronts a villain who’s long been in hiding – a fiend known as The Poet.

Former FBI agent Rachel Walling is working a dead-end stint in South Dakota when she gets the call she’s been dreading for four years. The Poet is back. And he has not forgotten Rachel. He has a special present for her.

Harry Bosch is adjusting to life in Las Vegas as a private investigator and a new father. He gets a call, too, from the widow of a friend who died recently. Previously in his FBI career, the friend worked on the famous case tracking the killer known as The Poet. This fact alone makes some of the elements of his death doubly suspicious.

And Harry Bosch is heading straight into the path of the most ruthless and inventive murderer he has ever encountered…

It’s a bittersweet end to McCaleb’s story. I became very fond of the character over his first two novels. I liked that Bosch was involved in this investigation, and Connelly gives the character a good send-off. Walling is another excellent character, who appears in a number of Bosch novels, too, as their lives and careers become more entwined. This was a more-conventional serial killer novel, which the Bosch series usually isn’t. Bosch gets tangled up with the FBI investigating the Poet’s return, and teams up with Walling and together they go rogue and try to solve the case without the support of the FBI. It’s an interesting novel, to be sure, but it wasn’t my favourite in the series. The ending was gripping and tense, though, and the final quarter of the book was great.

So, a rather quick-and-dirty review of the three novels. As I said at the top, I’ve read eight of Connelly’s novels in rather quick succession. Each of them contains interesting and intelligent commentary on crime, law enforcement, and Los Angeles — not to mention the changing nature of each of these in the wake of 9/11 and general changes in society. (The post-9/11 changes become more prominent in later novels, such as The Overlook, which I will probably review separately in the next couple of days.)

For me, Connelly is at the top of the crime genre. His novels are perfectly balanced, his prose is exactly what I look for in novels, and his characters all feel real and whole. Each of his novels has gripped me from very early on, and I always finish them wanting to move right on to the next one.

Very, very highly recommended. I love this series.

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Michael Connelly’s Bosch Universe novels are published in the UK by Orion Books, and in North America by Little, Brown.

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