Harry's game

When crime-writer Michael Connelly was 13, his family relocated from Philadelphia to Florida. 'My mum worked at a bank and she would take me and my two brothers to this big city park,' he recalls. 'We'd have to play sports and take care of ourselves. She'd pick us up on her way home

from work.'

Their only respite from Florida's humid climate was a small, air-conditioned library on the corner of the park where the boys would cool off. 'The librarians knew what we were doing, so they instituted this rule that you had to be reading inside the library.'

Anyone caught without a book was marched to the stacks and handed one from the shelves.

On the day this happened to Connelly, the librarian chose To Kill a Mockingbird. His life changed there and then, although the teenager didn't realise it at the time. 'I can't say I was hit by a bolt of lightning and said, 'I'm going to be a writer'. It wasn't like that. But it put me on the road to being a reader. I started pursuing stuff in the stacks without a librarian pulling me by the ear. I became quite voracious. It was the foundation of wanting to write.'

Forty years on, Connelly is one of the world's top-selling novelists. Page-turners such as The Poet, The Lincoln Lawyer and Echo Park sell by the million and have been translated into 31 languages; 1998's Blood Work was made into a movie by Clint Eastwood.

Yet, Connelly has never forgotten his crucial introduction to literature, and has used his 18th novel, The Overlook, a slippery tale mixing murder and terrorism, to pay his respects. The dedication reads: 'For the Librarian who gave me To Kill a Mockingbird'.

He couldn't have picked a more auspicious way of expressing his gratitude. What The Overlook lacks in quality (critics are divided), it more than makes up for in prestige, appearing initially as a serial in The New York Times. This is not an invitation the paper extends to any old novelist: Connelly has joined an exclusive club including Patricia Cornwell, Elmore Leonard, Scott Turow, Michael Chabon and, most recently, Ian Rankin.

If this sentimentality leads you to suspect that Connelly is a soft bunny of a writer, then think again. Built like a linebacker, albeit with a penchant for personal grooming, Connelly's is an imposing and rather taciturn presence - his bout of childhood recollection is the one moment where he opens up.

Otherwise given to the same no-nonsense sentences that pepper his fiction, his conversation is punchy, to the point and unremittingly deadpan. This is a writer who makes even the colourful parts of his job sound matter-of-fact.

'I go visit my contacts in the police department,' Connelly says about his research. 'Take 'em out to lunch or dinner - things I did as a reporter to procure sources. In those days, I had to keep an arm's length distance. I don't have to worry about that now, so they're my friends. Many times I do stuff with them and nothing comes of it, but I've had a good time.'

Quite what Connelly's idea of a good time might be never emerges. True, he cracks the occasional dry joke, but the same cannot be said for a smile. And while he does laugh on one occasion - while reminiscing about covering crime scenes for the LA Times - the tone is more disenchanted than comic.

'I'd be right at the yellow tape and would think I knew more [about crime] than most people. But the reality was I didn't know anything.' Cue the brief cough of laughter.

His tough talk and world-weariness brings to mind Harry Bosch, the grizzled, maverick LAPD officer who has starred in 13 of Connelly's novels, including The Overlook. After almost two decades on the beat, Bosch has earned the right to be compared to famous LA detectives such as Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and Lew Archer.

Connelly himself refutes the comparison, detecting few similarities save that both are left-handed and have daughters (Harry's lives in Hong Kong). Only one Bosch novel, he says, has ever reflected any part of his personal experience: 1999's Angel's Flight, which features a plot inspired by the LA riots that he covered in his last year as a reporter.

Nevertheless, common to both is an emotional reserve, a sceptical optimism about the world and an unwavering professional integrity. In Bosch, this verges on an almost pathological inability to compromise his beliefs. In The Overlook, his investigation of a doctor murdered by suspected terrorists leads him into conflict with the Chief of Police, FBI agents and Homeland Security.

'Harry's a part of an institution that's supposed to safeguard us,' Connelly says. 'Most often, that same institution is the biggest obstacle to doing that - especially the LAPD, which is rife with politics. It makes it hard to go from point A to point B and find the killer.'

Connelly's own spirit of independence may be slightly milder, but it was tested to the full by The New York Times assignment. Normally blessed with the sort of creative freedom only immense success can buy, he had grown used to writing what he likes, how he likes and when he likes. Connelly regularly compares his compositional process to the improvisational free jazz of pianist Keith Jarrett.

'[The New York Times] really crimped that style, really messed with the momentum both of writing and the story. I'd written fiction for a number of years and never had to hit the word count for a chapter. I had forgotten about writing to a set space. Suddenly I had to write 16 chapters that were as close to 3,000 words as possible.'

Connelly's solution was elegant, if paradoxical. On the one hand, he needed a narrative structure that was tight and manageable - 'a constrained amount of time that would create momentum and, hopefully, be entertaining and fast-moving'. On the other, he wanted a story that had 'a higher level of implication - a reflection of what's going on in the world'.

Inspiration came when a Secret Service agent inside Homeland Security told him about the theft of highly radioactive caesium from a hospital in North Carolina. The moral was to show how 9/11 had changed US security services. 'The crime took place in 1998 and was treated as a financial matter, he says. 'If it happened now, the first thought would be terrorism, and all the forces of Homeland Security and the FBI would descend. That's how different the world is today.'

Connelly's own world has undergone changes: after many years in Los Angeles, he's relocated to Florida (like his parents before him). 'Change is good for what I do. New surroundings help inspire creativity. I think the LA books written since I left are more accurate, more real. An unintended laziness sets in when you write about the place you live.'

Connelly ventures into new territory in his next projects. There's a sequel to the much-praised The Lincoln Lawyer, but first he has a film adaptation of the TV series The Equalizer to complete. 'I've enjoyed aspects of The Equalizer, but I can't wait to get back to writing a book,' he says.

Fans of Harry Bosch need not fear, then. Although his retirement age is fast approaching, Connelly says there is life in the old dog yet. He even plans to fly Bosch to Hong Kong, where he can visit his daughter and relive somewhere he first visited as a soldier on leave from Vietnam.

'I have been out to research a story, and friends there constantly send me news of the latest crimes. I'm putting together a big file of stuff to draw on.' Connelly remains awestruck that readers in Hong Kong are interested in his detective.

'The further I go from LA, the more surprised and fulfilled I am that anyone would care about this guy. It's amazing. It does underline the power of story telling, the power of character.'

That librarian in Florida has a lot to answer for.

Writer's notes

Name Michael Connelly

Genre Crime fiction

Latest book The Overlook (Orion, HK$217)

Age 51

Born Philadelphia

Lives Tampa, Florida

Family Married with a daughter

Other works include The Black Echo (Orion, 1992), The Black Ice (Orion, 1993), The Concrete Blonde (Orion, 1994), The Last Coyote (Orion, 1995), The Poet (Orion, 1996), Trunk Music (Orion, 1997), Blood Work (Orion, 1998), Angel's Flight (Orion, 1999), Void Moon (Orion, 2000), A Darkness More Than Night (Orion, 2001), City of Bones (Orion, 2002), Chasing the Dime (Orion, 2002), Lost Light (Orion, 2003), The Narrows (Orion, 2004), The Closers (Orion, 2005), The Lincoln Lawyer (Orion, 2005), Echo Park (Orion, 2006).

Non-fiction Crime Beat: A Decade of Covering Cops and Killers (Orion, 2006)

Other jobs Police reporter for the LA Times

Next project A sequel to The Lincoln Lawyer. Film script of The Equalizer.

What the papers say

'A crime-writing genius.' - Independent on Sunday

'Connelly has produced another blindingly good plot, which mixed with spellbinding action, takes us deep into a corrupt world ... This is crime writing of the highest order.' - The Guardian

Author's bookshelf

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

'The book that put me on the road to being a reader. It was the idea of doing what was right under very difficult circumstances, where you might be the only voice of reason.'

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

'I fell under the spell of Kurt Vonnegut. I hadn't read any science fiction, and I know he would probably rail at calling it science fiction, but this opened up a whole new world. It did have a downside - I got all of his books and stopped going to class.'

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

'The decision to become a writer came after I read Raymond Chandler. I saw the film of The Long Goodbye at university, and that made me get the book. As with Vonnegut, I stopped going to class and read all of Chandler. When I came out of that reading tunnel, I said I want to do this.'

Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

'I was going to choose Ross McDonald's Underground Man, but I decided on this just because it created a whole new sub-genre which I've worked in - that involving serial killers. It was the first serial killer book that did it at a great level.'