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The Night Stalker

  Crime Beat: A Decade of Covering Cops and Killers
Michael Connelly
Little, Brown, 2006
Rating: 4.0

Posted: June 13, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

It sounds either intriguing or frightfully boring: a collection of newspaper articles by bestselling crime novelist Michael Connelly, culled from the years he spent chronicling cops, killers and criminals before becoming the celebrated author of The Poet, Blood Work and the Harry Bosch series. It should be no surprise that a writer of Connelly's caliber and reputation could write engaging profiles of itinerant criminals and weary homicide detectives -- but still, we're talking newspaper articles, you know? Surely reading too many of these in one sitting might cause the reader's eyes to cross?

As it happens, Connelly largely avoids that seemingly inevitable trap. Crime Beat, which collects pieces from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Los Angeles Times, alternates between longer, feature-y pieces that delve deeper into the personalities behind these various crimes, and shorter, more reportorial articles that follow the time-tested "pyramid" formula -- new stuff at the top, leading down into rehashed facts.

But Connelly was apparently (and again, not surprisingly) one of those absorbing news writers who could keep the latter type of story from feeling as dry as kindling. Even when he's recounting the facts of a particular murder case for the third or fourth time, Connelly keeps the reader turning pages with the same propulsive energy he brings to his procedural thrillers. That's partly because he displays a sharp eye for character details -- like a detective's teeth marks worn into the earpiece of his glasses -- and never gets so jaded as to reduce his subjects to faceless statistics. But any appreciation one gains of these writings will also be informed by context -- by the acclaimed crime writer Connelly went on to become.

It's impossible, for example, to read "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight" -- about a loose-knit group of borderline-inept thugs-for-hire whose botched murder attempts nevertheless leave at least one intended victim psychologically scarred -- without imagining how researching and writing such a story must necessarily have later influenced the writer's worldview, his writing style and his characters. And it's easy to see the dramatic possibilities in a story like "Open Territory" -- about a Broward County-based organization that selflessly collects data on vacationing gangsters and shares it with other law-enforcement agencies -- or an account of a lawsuit that paints an elite Los Angeles strike force as a cabal of corrupt cops straight out of FX's The Shield.

But ultimately, what makes Crime Beat an engrossing read is these stories' effect on the reader, not the writer. It's just as impossible to read Connelly's accounts of the case against Toru Sakai, a Japanese-American man suspected of killing his successful businessman father, or even David Miller, whose double-life seems the stuff of a Hollywood movie, and not be struck by the fact that murderers and other criminals are also ordinary human beings, with the same needs and love lives and mortgages as everyone else.

Even Christopher Bernard Wilder, whose killing spree Connelly traces across multiple states, comes across less like a movie version of a serial killer than like that small-time hustler you know through a mutual friend, which makes Connelly's recounting of his crimes all the more chilling. And if we view those felons with a bit of "There but for the grace of God go I" sobriety, we also see the policemen in Connelly's stories as noble, fallible professionals who often bring their quarry to justice through numbing, tedious drudgery and the occasional lucky break -- no hot-dogging Martin Riggses here.

Even when they affect a "real-world" tone, detective stories and police procedurals -- whether Connelly's or those of the late Ed McBain, or TV warhorses like Law & Order and CSI -- can't help but wrap us in an illusory veil that convinces us that the good guys out there fighting for us are just smarter, more resourceful and all-around just better at what they do than the bad guys. What Crime Beat does best is remind us, like a well-written true-crime book does, that the figures on both sides are just like the rest of us.

Taken cumulatively, these stories reinforce the mundane details behind even the most heinous crimes -- underlining the fact that you could very well know someone who murdered a spouse, or a string of girls across several states, for money, out of depravity or simply to keep a secret. And that's far scarier, somehow, than the exaggerated antics of some larger-than-life cartoon character like Freddy Krueger or Hannibal Lecter.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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