Thursday, 20 February 2014

Harry Bosch From Page to Screen: The Long Hello

Adapting a beloved crime series for TV or film is fraught with danger. Of the writers that have had many of their works adapted for the screen, they will say the best way to handle the process is to meet the producer in a parking lot, the producer throws the writer a suitcase full of money and the writer tosses over the book in exchange and never the two shall meet again. If the writer tries to control the adaptation inevitably conflict arises and the project is destined for disaster.

Well, if there were a rule book for screen adaptations, Michael Connelly just tore it up. And in style. In so doing, he has created one of the most compelling and unique police dramas yet seen on our television screens. Don't be put off by the fact that you will watch this first episode of Bosch on Amazon or LOVEFiLM. The quality of the personnel involved and the freedom enjoyed by Michael Connelly in bringing his most famous creation to life has resulted in a slick, addictive, intelligent and emotionally mature cop drama that, for me at least, stands easily beside some of the best episodes of The Wire or The Sopranos.

Michael Connelly's most enduring character is LAPD Homicide Detective, Harry Bosch. Through twenty years of bestselling novels Connelly has crafted a body of work which tracks not only the life of a Detective but chronicles the history of Los Angeles. The Edgar Award winning writer and critic, Patrick Anderson, of the Washington Post, said the Harry Bosch series is the finest crime series ever written by an American author. When you consider that Connelly sits in that category alongside the likes of Chandler, Hammett, Ross McDonald, Parker and others, it's perhaps easier to see the sheer weight of that statement.

So how do you write the perfect crime series?

To answer that question you have to go back to the late seventies and a young Michael Connelly studying at Florida University. Several years after its initial release, Robert Altman's 'The Long Goodbye' played for one night only in a local movie theatre and Connelly caught that screening. He went out the next day and bought the book by Raymond Chandler, discovered it was very different from the movie he'd watched the night before, and then binged on Chandler over a weekend. During that weekend he decided he wanted to be a writer and changed his major to journalism.

It was this journalistic background that would eventually serve Connelly well as a novelist. He wrote two novels that never saw the light of day, because he knew something was missing from them. A week shadowing a homicide squad gave the reporter that missing element. During that week Connelly attended at three murder scenes and saw something unique and unexpected at each one; Sergeant Hurt (who was Connelly's liaison and minder for the week) knelt down beside the body of each victim, removed his glasses and placed the ear piece into his mouth. He remained that way for a few moments, his glasses in his mouth, as if he were communing with the victim. Sergeant Hurt never revealed to the young reporter exactly what he was doing. At the end of a tiring week, Connelly observed Hurt removing his glasses and throwing them onto the table. While Hurt rubbed his tired eyes, Connelly noticed the frames of those glasses had a deep notch, where the cop had bit down on the arm of the frame during his silent communion with victim after victim. Connelly knew then the Sergeant hand been clenching his teeth, hiding his quiet rage at another senseless death. That was the missing element in Connelly first two novels; the heart and the emotion immortalised by the groove in Sergeant Hurt's glasses.

Over 20 Harry Bosch novels the reader can see Harry's progression through the dark tunnel presented by violent crime in Los Angeles. To place even a small element of that character's journey onto the small screen would be an achievement if it was done over the course of a series. Michael Connelly has somehow accomplished this in a single episode.

The TV Pilot opens with Harry Bosch and his partner trailing a suspected serial killer, whom Harry corners and fatally shoots in a dark alley which results in Harry being sued by the family for wrongful death. The viewer questions whether Harry planted the gun on the body after he fired the shot or if the suspect was indeed armed and reached for a gun giving Bosch no alternative but to fire. Instead of lying low during the trial, Harry stumbles upon the possible homicide of a thirteen-year old boy, whose bones are found in the Los Angeles hills. And so the first episode establishes these twin stories (taken from the novels - The Concrete Blonde and City of Bones) and combines the two with new material. Instead of a sixty-year old Bosch, Connelly gives us a younger version of the character and roots the story in contemporary LA. Altman pulled off a similar trick with The Long Goodbye, updating Chandler's Marlowe from the 50's to the 70's, adding new story elements and focusing on the more sensitive and emotionally resonant aspects of Marlowe's character.

But here, the parallels between the two adaptations diverge. Where Altman deliberately shaded Marlowe in a more favourable light with Elliot Gould, Michael Connelly perfectly distils the heart of his character onto the screen through Titus Welliver. At first I thought there was merely a physical resemblance between the Gould of the early seventies and Welliver's Bosch, but then it became clear that the similarity lies within their astonishing skill as actors as they capture the humanity and compassion of their characters. In almost every scene you can see Bosch struggling with the burden of empathy and the righteous anger that threatens to overwhelm him, taking him closer to being enveloped by the dark abyss through which he must travel.

All the exciting technical and procedural police elements are here, as they are in a lot of police shows. The dark, funny and healthy cop humour is here too, but the show is really a character study as well as a riveting police drama and this is testament to the actors and to Michael Connelly who created, produced and co-wrote the series with Eric Overmyer (The Wire).

So go and watch Bosch, for free, vote to see the whole series, pray that Amazon picks it up and then go buy a Harry Bosch book while you're waiting for the next instalment.

I saw the spark of something special and unique in Bosch. I saw the beginnings of what could be the finest American crime drama ever produced for television. I saw an actor embody Michael Connelly's Bosch and during some of those quieter moments, behind Welliver's eyes, I saw Sergeant Hurt's glasses. A Bosch fan cannot ask for more.

This blog post originally appeared on Orion's Murder Room. 

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Tuesday, 4 February 2014

From Disaster to a Dream Come True Part 2 - Getting a Publisher

In Part 1 I talked about what it was like to be accepted by a leading literary agent and the waiting, hoping and nail-biting inevitably involved when you’re searching for a literary agent. I know what it’s like to be on that search, to have that goal. Once I’d achieved it I thought I’d got it made and the worrying would be over.
I was wrong.
The fear doesn’t go away. If anything the anxious anticipation just gets worse.  
Before your book goes out on submission to publishers your agent will probably want you to do some work on it. For me there wasn’t that much. I was really just tidying up. How much or how little you do is up to you but invariably most of the advice you get at this stage from your agent is probably spot on. The advice I received certainly hit the mark. So after you’ve revised the book, proof read again and again and you send it off, you feel pretty good about the book. For me this feeling lasted right up until the book went out on submission. Then I felt about as confident as an MP submitting his Parliamentary expenses. However much you’ve sweated, lost sleep and swept from the peaks of blissful optimism to the crushing reality of rejection during your search for literary representation – trust me, this is nothing, absolutely nothing compared to the near constant nerve-shredding anxiety that you will go through when you know that your agent has sent your book out on submission to publishers. What if they hate it? What if it doesn’t sell? What if all those rejections I received were right and my agent is wrong? Will my agent drop me? Will they find out I claimed seventy-five thousand pounds for toilet roll and digestive biscuits? (sorry, getting confused with the MP.)
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m aware that a lot of writers have said that this stage was by far the worst and I can only suppose that it very much depends on what type of person you are and how you deal with it. If you do an internet search you won’t find nearly as much out there on what it’s like to have a book on submission. I suspect that the  reason you don’t read so much about this stage of the process is down to one very simple truth - Sadly, most aspiring writers will not get a literary agent. If you blog or write about how nervous you are whilst your book is out on submission to publishers you will not only sound ungrateful for what’ve you’ve already achieved but you will garner no sympathy from the host of aspiring writers who would sell their grandmother to be in your shoes. So you don’t complain, you don’t bitch about it – you can’t because you are so lucky to have an agent that loves your book enough to put their name and their reputation behind it.
The only thing to do is suck it up.
The best advice I’ve read about how to deal with this agonizing waiting game is to simply write something else. I didn’t want to do that. My novel, The Defence, is the first in a series and I knew that the next book I wanted to write was the next book in that series. I didn’t want to do that in case I couldn’t sell the first book. Incidentally, even though my books are a series, you will be able to read them in any order. So I couldn’t write something else. Instead I would have to resign myself to checking my email every five minutes.
So how long does this process last? It can take years. It can take months. It can take re-writes and re-submissions. There are plenty of fabulous writers that have taken a long time to get accepted by a publishing house and some very talented writers (people with a lot more talent than me) that never get their work through the traditional publishing model. I was one of the lucky ones – for me it took about a week.
It took all the will power I had not to phone my agent, or email him to ask what was going on. He’d told me that he would let me know. Of course he would. On the Friday of that week, about 6.30pm I got an email from my agent. I was standing in my hall. I saw the little email icon on my phone. It was an email from Euan. My first thought was that this is an email to tell me not to worry, that there had been no offers but he would be trying the next round of publishers.
Again, I was wrong. The email thanked me for being so patient. Then it said there had been an offer for The Defence. In fact, four publishers wanted the book. Each of the four publishers were from respected publishing houses. Each of the publishers not only wanted The Defence, they wanted the next two books in the series. I had plenty of ideas for the series but at that stage hadn’t managed a single word of prose for any of them. Euan was going to hold an auction. The sums of money involved were life-changing. I almost dropped the phone. My wife was ecstatic. What did I feel? I can’t really describe it. I still feel it. Relief is one part of it.
You see, I didn’t write The Defence for money. I wrote it because I had to write it. Now that might sound a little strange and quite pretentious. I’m not saying that I was compelled, through the sheer power of my own genius to write this book. No, nothing like it.
I wrote this book for my mother, knowing that she would never read it.
The only reason I’m a writer today is because of her. When I was a kid my Dad would take us to Harry Hall’s second-hand book shop on Gresham Street in the heart of Belfast. My Mum and I would pass a morning choosing our 5p paperbacks. When we didn’t have enough money for the bookshop, we went to the Library. When I started to write in my teens she was the person who gave me encouragement. I stopped writing before I turned twenty. At that stage I was writing screenplays, I’d gotten an agent but I could never sell anything. So I decided I was never going to make it as a writer and I stopped writing for the next 15 years.
In 2011 my Mum passed away, suddenly, after a quick and devastating illness. She was the one person in my life who had told me I should write. So I decided that life was too short, I was going to give this another shot and this time it would work. This time, I would write a book and I would get it published. I did this for her. To show her that I wasn’t a failure. I suppose, losing myself in my book helped me push away the pain for a few hours while I worked away on a small, Compaq notebook that I used to write my first draft. While writing the book I was escaping into a different world, a world that I could control.
At that moment in September 2013, standing in my hallway, with the knowledge that my book would be published, I felt massive relief.
The next days and weeks went by in a blur. I would have been lucky and honoured to sign with any of the four publishers that offered and I eventually signed with Jemima Forrester and Jon Wood of Orion. Two great professionals and two thoroughly warm, generous and funny people who have been a joy to work with. I landed on my feet there.  Following a German auction, a pre-empt for Dutch Rights within hours of submission and a pre-empt for Italian Rights at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I felt like a lottery winner.
And it just gets more and more surreal – well known Hollywood Production companies are interested in the film rights, the book will be going out to more and more territories.
I’ve been very lucky so far.  
I hope you will be too.