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Sunday, Nov. 15, 2009

Crime worlds collide in Kowloon

NINE DRAGONS, by Michael Connelly. Little, Brown and Company, 2009, 384 pp., $27.99 (hardcover)

Michael Connelly's series character, LAPD homicide detective Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch, had a rough time as a youth. His mother, a Hollywood party girl, was murdered and he was raised in foster homes until old enough to serve in a squad of U.S. Army "tunnel rats" in Vietnam. In "The Last Coyote" (1995), one of Connelly's best and a great introduction to the series, Bosch, while on administrative leave, uses his free time to track down the murderer of his own mother.

The archetypal loner, Bosch is also incorruptible and once put a female FBI agent named Eleanor Wish behind bars. Upon her release Wish became a professional gambler in Las Vegas. The two were reacquainted by coincidence, fell in love, and their brief, unhappy marriage produced a daughter, Maddie.

That brings us up to now. While Wish is working in a Macao casino and adolescent Maddie is running with a bad crowd in Hong Kong, Bosch and his partner are investigating what appears to be a conventional crime — the shooting death of a liquor store owner in South L.A. Initial evidence suggests involvement of a Chinese "triad" syndicate. Impatient with the slow response of the LAPD's Asian Gangs Unit, Bosch uses his cell phone to transmit images of tattoos on the victim's corpse to his daughter in Hong Kong, who reads Chinese well enough to translate them.

A muscle-bound hatchet man is taken into custody while attempting to flee the U.S. and, in what appears to be an act of triad retaliation, Maddie is abducted.

Bosch immediately flies to Hong Kong, where he teams up with his ex-FBI ex to go to their daughter's rescue. During his brief sojourn — the law enforcement equivalent of "parachute journalism" — Bosch sets a speed record for whacking bad guys and is ready to proclaim "mission accomplished" before the ink on his passport's entry stamp has dried.

Connelly, a former crime reporter, didn't get to be one of America's top mystery authors without exceptional research, but "Nine Dragons" could serve as a textbook example of what happens when writers think they can deviate from their mother tongue without engaging in due diligence. Chinese terms incorporated into the narrative, from body tattoos to personal names, are consistently fumbled.

The liquor store shooting is ultimately solved by tenacious police legwork, high-tech forensics and good old street smarts. The flurry of mayhem in Kowloon proves rather gratuitous, leaving readers with jet lag and the book's shell-shocked protagonist even more physically battered and emotionally traumatized than ever.

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