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from saturday's books section

Michael Connelly

The many Michael Connelly fans who were somewhat disappointed by his previous novel, The Scarecrow - featuring reporter Jack McEvoy in a coincidence-laden plot involving the death of newspapers, a cold-hearted serial killer and the theft of personal information off the Internet - can relax. Nine Dragons, his latest, not only brings back popular Los Angeles homicide detective Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch, but also features an intricate, wide-ranging and utterly compelling story, to go with credible, sympathetic characters and exotic locations, unusual for Harry, who seldom leaves L.A.

The shooting death of an elderly liquor-store owner in hard-case South L.A. is not the sort of case normally assigned to the elite Homicide Special Squad, but it has been four weeks since Bosch and his partner had drawn a "fresh kill," and in any case they are supposed to be backing up the overworked South Bureau, which would usually have taken the call.

Also, Bosch has a soft spot for the victim, a Chinese immigrant named John Li, who had done him a small kindness many years before. So when he promises Li's family he'll catch the killer, there's good reason to believe him.

Bosch's usual partner, Ignacio Ferras, is hampered, more mentally than physically, by a wound incurred months before while on duty, and is further distracted by a young family and a demanding wife. And since Bosch finds himself out of his depth linguistically and culturally in the Li case, he requests assistance from the Asian Gang Unit, bringing multilingual Detective David Chu onto the scene.

But it is Ferras, working the store's security recordings, who discovers a connection between John Li and a triad gang, the first breakthrough clue in the case. Bosch and Chu track down the suspect and capture him just before he boards a plane for Hong Kong. Predictably, the triad foot soldier, named Bo-Jing Chang, clams up.

In a strong and ongoing side story, Bosch has been trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with his 13-year-old daughter, Madeline, who is living with her mother, former FBI agent Eleanor Wish, now a professional poker player working for a Macau casino. Bosch and Maddie get along well, considering that all their communication is by text messaging and cellphone conversation. Maddie, in fact, would just as soon live with her father in L.A., especially since Eleanor has found a new man to share her life with. But Bosch's life, already complicated, ratchets up seriously when he receives a video of Maddie bound and gagged and looking desperately frightened.

Bosch searches for evidence to tie Chang down, and plans a weekend trip to Hong Kong, where he figures he will have 39 hours to find and free Maddie before Chang is released for lack of evidence. He arrives there exhausted, met by Eleanor and Sun Yee, the head of security at the casino where she works. The three of them embark on a frantic search based on the slimmest of clues, a search fuelled by adrenalin and punctuated by several bloody deaths.

Connelly's Hong Kong is alive with smells and sounds, dense with people and buildings. He is a dab hand at creating cityscapes with pulse and personality; reviewers often comment that his Los Angeles is another character in the novels, and his Hong Kong is in the same class.

In the end - and it's not giving too much away to say so - Maddie is rescued and ensconced safely in Harry's L.A. home, attending a neighbourhood school and talking to a therapist, while Bosch continues to work on the case of the murdered John Li, a case that has more than its share of sharp turns and surprises.

There are more twists and turns in the final 40 or 50 pages of Nine Dragons than most books contain in their entirety, but it all makes perfect sense and ties together most satisfyingly. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Bosch's half-brother, "Lincoln lawyer" Mickey Haller, makes a delightful cameo appearance toward the end of the novel, dancing nimbly around two Hong Kong police detectives determined to bring Bosch back with them to explain the many dead bodies left in his wake in their city. Fat chance of that.

H.J. (Jack) Kirchhoff is the Assistant Books Editor of The Globe and Mail.

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