“The Late Show” starts with two blazing hours of a Ballard work shift. She begins by answering an elderly woman’s complaint about credit card fraud. Then she learns of a cross-dresser who’s been savagely attacked. As usual, Connelly relies on his inside-baseball knowledge about police attitudes. “Drag queens, cross-dressers and transgenders were all generally referred to as dragons in vice,” he writes. “No distinctions were made. It wasn’t nice but it was accepted. Ballard had spent two years on a decoy team in the unit herself. She knew the turf and she knew the slang. It would never go away, no matter how many hours of sensitivity training cops were subjected to.”
Then, during the same night, there are “four on the floor in a club on Sunset” — four shooting victims in one booth, and a waitress near the back exit who turns out to be a fifth. This club, the Dancers, takes its name from another in Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye,” and its drinks are named for Los Angeles literary titles. Connelly doesn’t give Ballard Harry Bosch’s taste for jazz, but he laces the book with noir references. There’s a character who favors brass knuckles that say “Good” and “Evil,” à la Robert Mitchum’s “Love” and “Hate” tattoos in the film “The Night of the Hunter.”
By the end of a highly populated book that Connelly says was tough to edit, Ballard will get to the bottom of every aspect of several crimes. And she’ll do a lot more. Smart and fierce, she never stops working, to the point of making Bosch look like a slouch. She’s also steamy enough to weaponize seduction if it will help her, and absolutely blunt when she speaks her mind. When a colleague who betrayed her tries to apologize, she responds with an unforgiving tongue-lashing.
The pacing of Ballard’s debut story is breathless. Unless she’s in the water, she never has a peaceful moment: There’s always a lead to follow, a house to scope out, a late-night call to make. One thing she loves about the night shift is feeling entitled to assume a combat stance at 3 a.m., scare some miscreant out of bed and shout: “Police! Let me see your hands!”
The novel moves so quickly, racking up so many witnesses and suspects, that it ought to be hard to follow. But Connelly expertly hides a trail of bread crumbs that leads straight to the denouement, with so much else going on that it’s impossible to see where he’s heading.
Ballard’s one shared experience with other Connelly characters is constantly getting stuck in traffic as she drives all over the greater Los Angeles area chasing down leads. She visits a hillside house not far from Harry’s, a porn movie studio, an encampment for the homeless, a hotel in Little Tokyo, a sinister used car dealership — on and on. She also winds up in what sounds like an extremely lurid situation: bound and gagged, naked and helpless, about to be tortured by a man she knows is a sadistic killer. And yet Connelly handles even this scene like the seasoned pro he is, avoiding exploitation and producing a demonstration of Ballard’s astonishing resourcefulness and bravery.
Ballard is complicated and driven enough to sustain the series Connelly doubtless has in mind for her. Connelly writes passionately about, and captures especially well here, the detective’s high when the pieces of a puzzle fall into place. “The adrenaline jolt Ballard had felt earlier now turned into a locomotive charging through her veins,” he writes — and this is early in the story, before that train even gets racing. “She knew deep down it was the reason she would never quit, no matter where they put her or what they said about her.”
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