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Book review: 'Echo Park': A cop's obsession to find killer

John Orr
San Jose Mercury News

Echo Park
by Michael Connelly
Little, Brown ($26.99)

"Echo Park" is Michael Connelly writing pretty much at the top of his craft, which is to say at the top of mystery writing today, and he seems to be following one of Elmore Leonard's famous Ten Rules for Writing: "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip."

This tale of Harry Bosch again battling bad people in Los Angeles grabs the reader early on and doesn't let go, with a story about Bosch doggedly pursuing a case he hadn't been able to close 13 years ago.

A young woman, Marie Gesto, had disappeared. Her car is found, and Bosch sees "a small stack of neatly folded clothing on top of a pair of running shoes. ... It was her clothes that got to Bosch. The way they were folded so neatly. Did she do that? Or had it been the one who took her from this world? It was the little questions that always bothered him, filled the hollow inside with dread."

And it's the details of a good cop's life in L.A., as well as the crime details, that always make Connelly's books so good - in addition to the rock-solid characterizations and the stories that always touch on issues that have gritty meaning to them.

The title of this book refers to an L.A. neighborhood, Echo Park, which is "in the shadows of downtown's spires and under the glow of lights from Dodger Stadium. ... By night it was the only place in the city where the air could be split by the sound of gang gunfire, the cheers for a home-run ball and the baying of the hillside coyotes - all in the same hour."

(OK, to split a hair - all of those sounds can probably also be heard in certain places in the San Fernando Valley, which is also part of Los Angeles, except the cheers would be for Little League or high school ball, not professional.)

The Gesto case has eaten at Bosch for years, even during the time he had quit the LAPD and certainly again once he re-upped and became part of the Open-Unsolved detectives division, working out of Parker Center in downtown.

Every once in a while he spends a week or two working the Gesto case, hits a wall and returns the files to archives. A few months later, he tries again.

He has a gut feeling that a rich punk named Anthony Garland, son of the powerful oil man T. Rex Garland, killed Gesto, but has never been able to prove it. The Garlands have taken legal steps to keep Bosch away.

Early in "Echo Park," as Bosch again is looking at the Gesto file, another detective demands to see it because he has just arrested a suspected serial killer who might have murdered Marie Gesto all those years ago.

Raynard Waits was busted on a traffic stop as he was heading into Echo Park. The officers were looking for a burglar, but instead found three bags in the van filled with the parts of two dead women.

Turns out Waits has killed at least eight women, and now the assistant district attorney handling the case is looking to give Waits a deal wherein Waits gets a life sentence instead of the death penalty if he leads them to where he says he buried Marie Gesto.

Bosch doesn't want such a deal. If Waits did all those crimes, "They ought to strap him down, put the juice in him and send him on down the hole to where he belongs."

And the whole case just doesn't sit right with Bosch. Even when Waits leads them to a shallowly buried body.

And if there's anything we've learned in the course of Connelly's excellent series, if Bosch smells a rat somewhere, there is a rat somewhere.

Of course, Bosch isn't perfect, and it turns out that some of his sense of what is going on in this case isn't quite right. But that just makes for some good switcheroo fun as Connelly keeps us securely belted for his roller-coaster of a mystery ride.

Bosch as always is a cop not afraid to break a rule, or even the law, in the pursuit of the greater good, and as usual is also willing to fly bravely in the face of bureaucratic dangers within the department. Big issues for us all in this age.

And this story also touches briefly on the topic of individual choice. It turns out that Bosch and the killer Waits had both lived in the same government home, McLaren, for abandoned or battered children.

"At McLaren they used to pass around that saying about every man having two dogs inside," Waits tells Bosch at one point. "One good and one bad. They fight all the time because only one can be the alpha dog, the one in charge. ... And the one that wins is always the dog you chose to feed. I fed the wrong one. You fed the right one."

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