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Book Review: The Overlook by Michael Connelly

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Michael Connelly combines two genres of detective fiction in The Overlook and for the first time in his career, trims his text to match his audience. In doing so, he finds his ideal format, and while the mystery he spins is obvious, the formula is so approachable that it is sure to succeed.

Murder mysteries come in several varieties. The soft or "cozy" kind are mostly character drama, with a whodunnit binding those characters together (like those horrible movies that track four roomates as they seek life, love and profit in the trendy city of the month). Cozies frequently involve interesting heroines or heroes with many personal issues to work out, as well as a search for, inevitably, love.

The hard kind of mystery are built around hard-driving cryptograms of characters, moral avengers who are consummate outsiders to the society they observe. The only character drama is in seeing the faults of others, and there's as much technical information as you can cram into a novel. Forensics, psychology, ballistics and sociology all make an appearance.

Like others to succeed recently in the mystery genre, Connelly combines these two, but what makes him different is that he alights on a format which perfects the experience from the reader's point of view. With this book, which apparently began as a serial, he cuts out much of the cozy experience without losing the character dimensions. Confident in his abilities, he also removes the excesses of hard mysteries without losing the delight readers take in finding a technical catch that points an accusing finger.

Mystery novels depend on their characters acting out in some way to demonstrate their feelings. In hard detective fiction, they get drunk and have sex, where in cozy mysteries they eat chocolate and throw away mementos of bad relationships. Connelly spares us the drama, and just tells us what his hero is thinking, but he does so in such abstract, short, Hemingwayesque sentences that it is hard to be cautious about them.

In the same light, he spares us the lengthy descriptions of technical process. Connelly knows that in a post-CSI world, the average reader is aware of the basics of forensics and while they might appreciate a new process, the standard lexicon is well established. So he throws that out, and replaces it with one-liner analysis from supporting characters.

With that baggage aside, the author cranks out the mystery in 200 fewer pages than he ever has before. This newfound simplicity requires he speed up the pace, which is also good, and add not only more suspense but emotional scenes that while rarer, are more intense, and so add to the story instead of seeming like sidelines to distract.

In this sense, Connelly's newest fits the format of one of the most successful mystery fiction creations every, televison's "Law and Order." The mystery begins; characters are presented; detectives work through leads; they find out it was deception all along, and turn their focus on the real killer at the last minute. As a format, it succeeds by keeping us entertained or terrified in alternating scenes.

This writer is at the top of his game, and has mastered his new format, but he has not yet figured a way to gain more depth than the average "Law and Order" episode, and this is the slight failing of this novel. Although it is expertly written, its mystery is not expertly designed, and so seems insubstantial. In some ways, I miss his earlier, meatier, plot-heavy creations.

However, on the whole, I prefer this format and the attitude it brings to his writing. Connelly seems to fight himself less, and because his characters aren't always gesticulating their emotions, they are more realistic and more understandable. The faster pace makes the mystery more suspenseful and on the whole, fun.

While I've been a devout Connelly reader for years, my interest is renewed by this serial version of his fiction. It takes away the formality of novels, and lets him spin his characters out through episodes which slowly build them, instead of trying to make each book a grand statement of their creation and destruction. As a result, I'd recommend this book to anyone who wants a gripping page-turner of a mystery.

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