Amazon’s Bosch Channels Classic Detective Noir

The second season of the series, premiering March 11, offers up clichés that are either a distraction or just part of the fun
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Harry Bosch’s real first name is Hieronymus, but you knew that. Classic detectives, or those aspiring to be classic, don’t have names like Steve Erickson or even Michael Connelly, the author of the novels on which Amazon’s series, Bosch, is based. They have names like Marlowe and Spade and Hammer and Archer, evoking Elizabethan writers and blunt instruments and folk heroes who rob from the rich and give to the poor. Harry’s mother, as we learned early in the series, was a prostitute abandoned by her son’s father, and while I can appreciate the idea of a hooker literate and ironic enough to survey the garden of earthly delights that is her life and name her child after a 15th-century Dutch painter, calling one’s kid Hieronymus when his last name is already Bosch sounds suspiciously like a novelist’s flourish. Bosch also has one of those spectacular pads perched on a hillside that only cops in movies or on TV shows live in, and he listens to jazz on a vintage turntable, because when have you heard of a detective streaming Joni Mitchell?

I can’t decide whether these clichés are a distraction in the series or part of the fun, which probably means they’re a bit of each. The biggest cliché is the most crucial, which is that Bosch’s stomping ground is L.A., our fair City of the Blank Slate, where going off the grid is a way of life, since there was never a grid to go off of in the first place. New York or Chicago impose an urban regimen on even the most unruly detective, but in L.A. there are no ruly detectives any more than there’s a grid. The most famous L.A. detective, Philip Marlowe, starred in a string of stories and novels (and a dozen or so movies and television shows based on them) in which each subsequent mystery became less interesting than the city; by 1949’s The Little Sister and 1953’s The Long Goodbye, L.A. swallowed up the stories altogether, leaving the only other thing their author, Raymond Chandler, cared about, which was Marlowe himself. Marlowe has been the template for almost every fictional detective who’s followed, a onetime renegade member of some institutionalized form of civic authority—it might be the police force or, in Marlowe’s case, the D.A.’s office—surrounded by too much corruption and too little competence until finally he’s driven to go it alone. Centered by a moral compass always fixed on true north, he’s isolated by a world that’s gyroscopically amok.

In the novels and onscreen, Bosch is a man out of time. He has sideburns that were out of style five years before he was old enough to grow them, a whatever-happened-to-good-old-fashioned-ice-cream disdain for gelato, and that so-retro-for-so-long-it’s-become-cool-again turntable in the barely earthbound space station with his address on it. If we can’t help cheering perennial heavy Titus Welliver’s promotion to titular hero in his own series, the show makes good use of a face that might as easily belong to Al Capone in 1991’s Mobsters or the angel of death called “the man in black” on 2010’s Lost, and when we’re introduced to him during a back alley shooting that’s shrouded in circumstantial uncertainty, he already teeters precariously on the edge of a final break with the LAPD; it’s just a matter of time before he tosses a supervising officer through a window. Like last year’s debut, Bosch’s new season is based on several Connelly novels collapsed into something less seamless than it wants to be, the upside being that you never quite know where you’re going and that a few of the tropes of a procedural are turned on their heads. In season one Bosch wasn’t so much trying to nail down the confession to a murder as negotiating too many confessions that weren’t true. Season two is more focused and accomplished, and also keeps things interesting by dividing the action between L.A. and its wayward satellite, Las Vegas, where Bosch’s estranged family lives.

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If Bosch departs from other classic noir detectives, it’s that he has a past and the demons that go with it. Whether wearing his conscience on his sleeve like Marlowe or his psyche on his zipper like Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, the typical L.A. detective has no biography, his entire life lived within the confines of his story, which is what lends him the clean impact of an uncomplicated archetype; when Chandler felt compelled to give Marlowe a past, it sounded too conveniently like Chandler’s. While resembling the facile, “motivating” backstory that movie and TV writers trade in, Bosch’s abused childhood provides insights into his work—if not into what it takes to be a family man—he began to glean only after losing his family. Both the Amazon series and Connelly’s source material share with novels like The Galton Case and Black Money by Ross Macdonald—the 1950s and ’60s successor to Chandler—the theme that families, particularly of the L.A. sort (which is to say scheming porn wives and failed, frustrated actors who molest their daughters, who in turn beat their younger brothers), are the most immediate price paid for L.A.’s anarchic promise. Creating Bosch, Connelly has fused Macdonald’s sense of theme with Chandler’s sense of character, and the most powerful moments of the series coincide with those secrets and events that rupture its families, whether they’re Bosch’s or others’. Halfway through the new run of episodes, the terrible reckoning that befalls another cop’s family and that you see coming from five episodes out nonetheless marks the series at its most dramatically wrenching.

Ralph Meeker's Mike Hammer gets a knuckle sandwich in the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly
Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer gets a knuckle sandwich in the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly

Photo courtesy of Everett Collection

“Every murder,” Bosch says early on, “is the story of a city,” and as soon as you hear this, you know Connelly wrote it, because it’s a novelist’s line, the single line that distills the novel’s whole world. A good novelist knows you get away with just one per book. For all of Bosch’s improbabilities, and acknowledging the magnetism of Welliver’s central performance, the series’ draw is the idea of murder’s archaeology or genetics, whichever metaphor you prefer—the notion that in a murder lies the burial ground or DNA of a time and place and people. Lately in movies and on TV, L.A. has been asserting itself as its own character more insistently than at any time since the ’40s and ’50s noirs of Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, and Kiss Me Deadly (crooked cop Lou Escobar from 1974’s Chinatown had a namesake in Bosch’s first season), and I admit I’m a sucker for a show where the characters down martinis at Musso & Frank. Recalling the opening of 2011’s Drive or the nocturnal scenes of 2014’s Nightcrawler, Bosch’s credits—the montage of a mirrored L.A. floating on the surface of its reflections—are the best since Mad Men, though the funky blues song is all wrong (it should be something from Bosch’s jazz collection, like Miles Davis’s “Générique”). When someone says to Bosch, “I thought you loved L.A.,” he answers, “I do. But I know what it is.” For all its legendary sunshine, the real L.A., the city of chaos without end and dreams subject to gravity, comes out at night, on the run for as far as the eye can see from Bosch’s house in the clouds.

 

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