C. K. August
Michael Connelly's Nine Dragons, traveling to Hong Kong
Michael Connelly’s crime novels that feature Detective Harry Bosch not only are set in Los Angeles, California but reflect the attitudes and culture of that city. In the fourteenth novel of this series, Nine Dragons, Connelly set one-third of the novel in Hong Kong. I loved the setting, however this deviation disturbed some of his regular readers who felt Harry was out of his depth in Hong Kong. But it wasn’t the first Harry Bosch novel where the detective travel abroad. In the second novel of the series, Black Ice, Bosch takes an unauthorized trip to Mexico to discover why a body found in L.A. has evidence of insects only found in Mexico.
Nine Dragons begins with the detective at work in the Robbery-Homicide Division of the Los Angeles Police Department. Just before quitting time, Bosch is sent on a case involving the murder of John Li, the Chinese-American owner of Fortune Liquors. Soon, it becomes necessary to call in the Asian Gang Unit to help with translations of not only language but also cultural norms. A probably link to a Chinese triad is discovered with tentacles reaching all the way to Hong Kong.
Then, the thing that Bosch has feared ever since he discovered that his former wife has had his child and is now living in Hong Kong, that nightmare scenario is now a reality. Someone, in Hong Kong, has kidnapped his daughter, Maddie. So Bosch sets off to join his former wife, Eleanor Wish, who was a FBI Special Agent when he met her in book one.
Connelly is a careful travel writer, meticulously documenting Bosch’s journey, starting with the fourteen-hour flight across the Pacific, on Cathay Pacific flight 883 landing at the airport Lantau Island at 4:55 a.m. He only has a small backpack but he’s not going to get through customs and immigration quickly.
First, he has to pass through a thermoscan. Nine Dragons was published in October of 2009. In April of 2009, the World Health Organization declared its first ever “public health emergency of international concern.” By June, the WHO and the CDC declared the flu outbreak a pandemic. Although the manuscript for the novel was probably submitted a year before publication, Connelly managed a rewrite to get the thermoscan into the novel. He also has Bosch rightly worry that his sweat might be interpreted as the flu, but he passes through the thermoscan without a problem and glances back seeing “the blue ghosts of travelers” on the screen with no “telltale blooms of red. No fever. At least not yet.”
The first inspector sees Bosch status as police detective and moves him into the “to be searched” line. The second inspector sees the envelopes of cash Bosch has brought with him. Connelly explains this is Bosch’s earthquake emergency money (reminding the reader of Bosch’s L.A. roots). Bosch exchanges $5,000 into 38,000 Hong Kong dollars.
Eleanor (his ex) and Sun Yee (her boyfriend) meet him. They have a Mercedes Sun Yee has borrowed from the casino where he and Eleanor work. Taxi companies hire triad people to provide them with legitimate jobs so they won’t be taking taxis. Once Bosch leaves the airport and enters the warm, humid air, Hong Kong becomes a reality.
“Bosch saw a low-lying mist clinging to the towers in Central and Wai Chai and across the harbor in Kowloon. He smelled smoke.”
He tells Eleanor it smelled liked “L.A. after the riots.” He got that right. They’re in the middle of the Hungry Ghost festival during which the gates of hell open and evil ghosts stalk the world. Burnt offerings attempt to appease their ancestors and ward off evil spirits. Connelly uses a burnt offering to great effect in Nine Dragons.
Connelly works at making Hong Kong familiar to his die hard series readers. He compares the Peak’s funicular tram to the one that plays a central role in Angels Flight, the sixth book in the series.
At one point, Bosch ends up in Wai Chai and Connelly really shines as a travel writer.
“The street was wet and steamy . . . fragmented reflections of neon splashed across . . . the windshields of taxis . . . bouncers stood on post . . . female hawkers sat on stools . . . ash can(s) for burning offerings to the hungry ghosts . . . were alive with flames.”
Connelly even manages to get in a bit of history about the New Territories as he and Sun Yee head there. More than a hundred years ago, it had been added by lease to Hong Kong as buffer against outside invasion. Now it had densely crowded centers populated by the poorest and least educated. Here the triads were strong. Here smugglers came up the river from the South China Sea.
Connelly does an excellent job of describing a housing complex as Bosch searches for signs of Maddie. When he learns that the man he’s looking for used a neighbor’s hungry ghost altar, he pursues the lead until he finds his daughter’s cell phone, which the man had attempted to burn on the altar. He gives the neighbor five hundred-Hong Kong-dollar-bills, and later he sees her burn the money on the altar instead of the fake money she’d purchased to burn on the altar.
Although Bosch has visited his daughter in Hong Kong in the past, he is still a visitor, no more knowledgeable than the average tourist, which provides an edgy quality to this book. He largely relies on Sun Yee for guidance as he moves around Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the New Territories.
One of the most meaningful events of any Bosch novel occurs in Nine Dragons, but it happens so subtly and quickly that if the reader happened to be skimming those pages, it could be missed. In a sense, it happens because Bosch is most likely disoriented and sleep-deprived so events unfold as they do.
Could Connelly have set the same events to play out LA? Of course, he could; he’s a talented writer, but would the effect have been the same? Probably not. When readers reflect on these events, they will be something that happened (but shouldn’t have happened) over there, over there in Hong Kong.
Without pushing the analogy too far, Connelly uses Hong Kong in much the way Polanski used L. A.’s Chinatown in the superb film noir by the same name. Fate, there’s no way to escape it, Bosch can only bear witness.