BOOK BEAT

A man of many murders

Best-selling mystery writer Michael Connelly recalls how a life of detour at UF helped him reveal his true identity


Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 31, 2005 at 9:40 a.m.

As a building construction sciences major at the University of Florida in the late '70s, Michael Connelly was comfortably on the way to following his father into the real estate industry.

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Mystery writer Michael Connelly and his latest book "The Closers."

And then, on a whim, he went to the Reitz Union on dollar-movie night to see "The Long Goodbye."

The Robert Altman-directed mystery starring Elliott Gould was Connelly's first taste of Raymond Chandler, the author and inventor of the original hard-boiled detective, Phillip Marlowe.

The experience changed his life.

"I loved the movie," says Connelly. "I went to go buy the book, and that's the way I discovered Raymond Chandler. I stopped going to classes and started reading all of Chandler's books and, after a couple of weeks, I changed my major to journalism and creative writing."

Today, Connelly is one of the top crime-fiction writers on the market. His books have won numerous awards, and each new title finds its way onto the best-seller list. His latest book, "The Closers," the eleventh novel featuring the protagonist Detective Harry Bosch, was released in May.

But Connelly didn't go straight from the UF campus into the world of crime fiction. Instead, he took a 14-year detour into the newspaper business. After graduating in 1980, he worked first at the Daytona Beach News Journal and then at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

In 1986, he co-wrote a lengthy story about the survivors of an airline crash for the Sun-Sentinel; the story was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The notoriety from the story helped land him a job covering the police beat at the Los Angeles Times. He was now covering the same turf where his hero Chandler made his name. After three years at the L.A. Times, Connelly began work on what would be his first novel, "The Black Echo." The book was published in 1992 and won the Edgar Award for best first novel by the Mystery Writers of America.

Since then, he has been turning out a book a year, many of which have been optioned by Hollywood, though only one, "Bloodwork," directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, has made it to the big screen thus far. Connelly says he works at his own pace, setting his contracts to match his output.

"I sign a contract for one book a year," he says. "But I don't feel like I'm a prisoner of a deadline or contract. No publisher will say 'I want that book now,' because they don't want it rushed." This year, in fact, Connelly will complete two books: another in the Bosch series and a book with an attorney as a protagonist, his first attempt at courtroom drama. He says he wants to try all the sub-genres of crime fiction before his career is over, and he has already crossed many of those off the list, from serial killer, to police procedural, to private-eye.

"I still want to do another heist novel, because I love reading them. And maybe a comedic crime caper - that might be the biggest challenge of them all," he says.

Connelly lives with his wife and daughter in Sarasota, and does his best to work his writing into his relaxed family lifestyle.

"I think my journalism background gave me a pretty good work ethic. I like to start early, often before it's light out. It gives me the momentum to get up and work through the distractions, before everybody's up and there's a kid running around," he says.

Though he's made his living writing fiction, it's often non-fiction that Connelly reads for pleasure. But a few books that provided inspiration for his career retain a special place in his personal library. Here's a glimpse into that library:

BOOKS THAT INSPIRED HIM:

"THE LONG GOODBYE" by Raymond Chandler: The first detective novel Connelly read, and the one that lead him down the road of crime fiction. Chandler's hero, Phillip Marlowe, must find the killer when his best friend becomes the suspect in his wife's murder. "Chandler totally brought Los Angeles alive in my mind. I had a visual sense of it," Connelly says.

"ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST" by Ken Kesey: The novel-turned- Oscar-winning film about a mental institution was another that had a profound effect on Connelly as a young writer. "Kesey took me into the interior fog of someone struggling to understand the reality around him."

"A CHILDHOOD, BIOGRAPHY OF A PLACE" by Harry Crews: Connelly attributes some of his writing style to Crews, under whom he studied during his time at the University of Florida.

"Crews' daring choice to start his life story five years before it began was a wonderful idea that was beautifully executed."

BOOKS IN HIS GENRE:

"I just finished reading 'NIGHT FALL' by Nelso DeMille and really was riveted by this story that blends fact and fiction revolving around the TWA airline that exploded over Long Island Sound in 1996."

"I also really liked James Swain's 'MR. LUCKY' because I think the world Swain inhabits as a writer is so interesting and rarely trod before." Swain's book, released earlier this year, follows an Atlantic City cop who specializes in casino scams.

" WALKING MONEY" by James O. Born: A thriller in which a cop is framed for a murder and the theft of $500,000. "I like stories about cops that are written by cops."

BOOKS HE READS FOR PLEASURE:

"FLYBOYS" by James Bradley: The true story of eight American fighter pilots who were shot down over Japan in 1945, one of whom was George H.W. Bush.

" LIONS OF HOLLYWOOD" by Scott Eyman: A biography of Louis B. Mayer, the movie maker who influenced American life and values for half a century.

"HIGHWAY 61" by William McKeen: McKeen is the chairman of the UF Journalism Department, and Connelly has been a guest lecturer in McKeen's class. "I love the blues, and this book journeys right into the heart of it," says Connelly.

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