America needs us, Mr President

If politicians and police commissioners want a street-level view, they read crime writer Michael Connelly

When the definitive history of 20th century crime fiction is finally written, Bill Clinton will deserve a lengthy footnote. An avid reader of thrillers and detective novels, he has boosted the career of several high-profile authors including Walter Mosley, James Lee Burke, Sara Paretsky and Harlan Coben.

Perhaps no one benefited more spectacularly from Clinton's patronage than Michael Connelly. In 1994, he was a fledgling author with a couple of novels to his name. These were well received but sold few enough copies to keep Connelly in his day job, reporting crime for the Los Angeles Times. Then the President allegedly walked out of a Washington bookstore and into a bank of waiting paparazzi carrying a copy of Connelly's third book, The Concrete Blonde. The image changed Connelly's life: one Harry Bosch book later and he could afford to write full-time.

"The Concrete Blonde incident helped my career quite a bit," Connelly says with characteristic understatement. "People were interested in reading what the President was reading; critics wanted to appraise it. But if there was a photo of Clinton with the book, I never saw it."

Almost two decades and 23 novels later, Connelly has become the quintessential crime writer's crime writer. When I asked several authors to recommend the autumn's best thrillers, almost everyone (including Lee Child and Mark Billingham) mentioned The Drop – the 17th instalment of Connelly's award-winning series featuring Detective Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch.

In person, Connelly answers questions volubly and with great seriousness, but pours cold water on the slightest hint of pretentiousness. When I ask what drives the 55-year-old to write, his answer mixes the exalted and the pragmatic. "I write to make money. I write to support my family. But you can do all those things in other jobs. It comes down to artistic expression and self-exploration. That sounds really heady for someone who just writes crime novels. My books are entertainments, but they mean something to me and hopefully to readers too."

The Drop is tersely written and multi-layered. Besides having two grim cases to unravel, Bosch has to contend with his sharp-eyed teenage daughter, the political machinations at LAPD headquarters, and the ever-looming prospect of retirement. Connelly also finds the time to examine LA's ever-changing social and economic identity, and muse on the nature (or nurture) of evil.

It only enhances Connelly's reputation as a chronicler of modern-day LA and a member of a vibrant contemporary literary scene that includes James Ellroy, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, James Lee Burke and David Simon. They are, Connelly agrees, members of a golden generation of writers who employ popular forms to explore grand social and political narratives. "If you want to learn about contemporary America, you should read crime novels," he says. "We're all in some way disciples of Raymond Chandler. There's a duty to do more than deliver a fancy puzzle. If you write about LA, say something about LA."

I ask whether crime novels can change a city as well as describe it, but Connelly is sceptical: "If you start thinking about that, you are on thin ice." But he does note that LA's former chief of police Bill Bratton (the so-called "supercop" consulted by David Cameron after the UK riots) read his novels to learn about the city before starting the job.

Apparently, rank and file police officers also appreciate Connelly. They love Harry Bosch for his honesty, integrity and impatience with bureaucracy. Connelly enjoys close relationships with several homicide detectives, something that was impossible during his days on the LA Times. "As a journalist, I built some trust with detectives, but there was always an acknowledgment that my job was not to support them. I used to say: 'You can trust me, I will always write the truth. But if you end up on the Rodney King tape, I will write that.' Now they tell me about their mistakes. They would never do that when I was a reporter."

While Connelly views this access to the realities of law enforcement as a privilege, he clearly finds the resulting insights sobering. "What scares me about these conversations with homicide detectives is [how they reveal] the randomness of the world. The randomness of how people end up dead; the randomness of how criminals are often caught."

What interests him today is how policemen cope with this knowledge. "At the core of my writing, I ask how people keep themselves safe when they witness the worst crimes imaginable?"

Exactly how much more Bosch can take remains unclear. 2012 will be his 20th year as a crime solver. Connelly is celebrating, if that is the word, by exploring another 20th anniversary: of the LA riots, which Connelly witnessed first-hand. "It was an amazingly bad experience to see the city come apart like that. You hope LA would have learned from its mistakes, but I see the city as more divisive now, socially and economically. It makes you think it could happen again."

Connelly sounds more optimistic about the future of Harry Bosch. The only sticking point he foresees is his own creativity. "I don't know if I'm losing my powers, but I worry about it. I know how hard it is to sustain a character over time. But no one's going to tell me when the series is over. He's at the level where someone somewhere is going to publish it, so I'm going to be the one who has to stop writing about Harry Bosch."

Of course, if the going ever does get tough, he could hand a book to Barack Obama – another US President with a taste for crime fiction. The question these days is, which man would benefit the most?

The Drop, By Michael Connelly (Orion £18.99)

'As Bosch stared down at the unending river of metal and glass, Pell's anguish clawed at him. He had robbed Pell of his one chance at redemption, the moment where he would make up for all the damage inflicted on him, and to his way of thinking, the damage he had inflicted. Bosch didn't necessarily agree with it but he understood it. Everybody is looking for redemption. For something.'

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