last updated: 6 September 2019 (approximate reading time: 6 minutes; 1160 words)
In his 2017 novel The Late Show—his first novel in nearly a decade not to feature Harry Bosch or Mickey Haller—Michael Connelly introduces us to a new character, Renée Ballard.
The Late Show includes the best of Connelly's police procedural story telling and overlays the tale with a look at the internal politics of the LAPD, but brings us the perspective of a new character.
I loved the book. Let me tell you why you might enjoy it.
Renée Ballard is a Hollywood detective who works “the late show”, the night shift. The detectives working this shift are on call when a crime has been committed—burglary, theft, assault. They take statements and then pass the case to specialist detectives who will work the case. As one of these late show detectives, Ballard sees the immediate aftermath of the crime, but never then sees the case through.
Ballard hasn't always worked the night shift. She was a rising detective in the homicide division when she was sexually assaulted by her boss, Lieutenant Robert Olivas. The assault was witnessed by her partner, Kenny Chastain. Ballard brought a complaint against Olivas but Chastain wouldn't back her, so the case was found against her, and as a result she was transferred out, arriving on the Hollywood late show.
During one evening shift, there is a mass shooting at a nightclub; Ballard is assigned as an extra pair of hands. She arrives to find the case is being run by Olivas, her old boss, and her former-partner, Chastain, is working as one of the lead detective.
Ballard follows some leads and finds a witness. She hands what she has found to the investigation team: Chastain comes to Ballard to pick up the evidence and the witness. It is the first time since Ballard's case that she and Chastain have spoken—the exchange is fairly unsatisfactory for Ballard. It's also the end of Ballard's involvement in the case.
Shortly afterward, Chastain is murdered; he was executed as he arrived home. It doesn't take long before the mass shooting at the nightclub is being attributed to Chastain—the working theory is that his execution was payback for the nightclub murder.
Ballard knows her ex-partner better than most—she worked closely with him for several years. Despite her personal dispute with him, she is certain that he wasn't involved with criminals and that he wouldn't commit a murder.
As the investigation moves to prove Chastain is guilty, Ballard looks to show his innocence. She soon finds that Chastain had uncovered evidence of the involvement of another police officer in the nightclub murder. Not only did Chastain find evidence, but he realized the danger for himself of pursing a murderous police officer and so he left Ballard a clue to follow in the event of his death.
With his death, Ballard follows the clue Chastain left for her.
There are several murders at the heart of the story. In many ways The Late Show can be viewed as a police procedural as we watch Ballard play her part in solving the murders. However, I see this novel more as a political book (political with a small p).
Ballard is a highly competent detective who has been dealt a bad hand. She was assaulted by a superior officer and then let down by Chastain, the one person she should have been able to rely on. Having been let down, she accepted her situation and is trying to do her job the best she can.
In making her sexual assault complaint, Ballard went through a process sanctioned by the LAPD. That process had little to do with protecting the victim of sexual assault or bringing the perpetrator to justice. Instead, it was about protecting the LAPD.
There is an incident in the story where Ballard kills a suspected murderer who has kidnapped and assaulted Ballard. There is an investigation that follows the killing—as is appropriate—but the investigation is focused on protecting the LAPD.
Worse, Ballard feels compelled to give answers—in substance, and in the terms that she gives her statement—that she knows will see her exonerated. She has read the union case studies and knows that she is on her own and has to play the system. So when questioned about the killing, she prefaces her answers: “fearing for my life…”
At every stage of pursuing criminals, Ballard and her fellow officers are expected to get results. However, the individual officers will be hung out to dry if it suits the Department.
Renée Ballard started as a character for a single book. Having written the book, Connelly found the character “too fierce, too interesting and too undeniable” and so she now appears in two further novels.
Like many great characters, Ballard has a deep background story and is, in many ways, broken.
Her mother was flakey and disinterested. She doted on her father, but then he died when she was fourteen. After her father's death she was homeless for a year before moving in with her grandmother (Tutu).
Her first job was as a journalist, but she soon found that she didn't want to report on crime. She wanted to help people and so joined the police.
The LAPD believe she lives with Tutu. While Ballard does visit and does her washing at Tutu's house, she is homeless (in the technical sense). Often she will sleep in a tent on the beach or at the station.
She is grounded by Tutu and her dog.
Ballard vs Bosch
I cannot talk about Connelly without mentioning Harry Bosch, not least since in future novels (Connelly's 2018 novel Dark Sacred Night) Ballard and Bosch cross one another's path.
There are similarities between the two—Ballard seems to follow the Bosch credo: everybody counts or nobody counts. But there are differences, most obviously: age, gender, experience, and financial circumstances.
But I think the biggest difference is what's at stake.
Bosch has the easier life. With his length of service, he has earned a position with a support network and he is given respect; he is largely left to solve crime. Ballard is expected to take a report and hand on the case. Ballard therefore has to fight if she wants to do anything on a case, let alone ensure that the right thing is done.
Ballard has been marked as a troublemaker. She made a complaint which, while it should have remained confidential, clearly became common knowledge. She has few friends and many enemies, therefore if she crosses a line, it is much more likely that a minor infraction will be used as an excuse to end her career. And in ending her career she will be robbed of her sense of identity and self-worth which comes with the status of being a police officer.
I'm looking forward to seeing more of Renée Ballard and to find how Ballard and Bosch work together. If you haven't read The Late Show, then check it out today.