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A stack of Michael Connelly paperback books. Dana Rodriguez for Vox

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The best $193 I ever spent: A mountain of detective fiction when my wife was pregnant

How a series of hard-boiled detective novels helped me navigate an exciting, uncertain time.

When my wife was pregnant last year, I found myself reading all the wrong things.

In preparation for the momentous journey that we were undertaking together, she threw herself into proper research mode. Her bedside table was stacked with memoirs, evidence-based birth tomes, and graphic novels about pregnancy, from Like a Mother to Kid Gloves to What No One Tells You — that last one with a sinister title that could double as a lost work by Gillian Flynn or Patricia Highsmith.

Meanwhile, my own reading list was a little ... different. Around the third trimester, I had stumbled into a fugue state courtesy of Michael Connelly and his Bosch novels — a popular, 22-book-long-and-counting series of detective fiction that debuted in 1992.

The timing, in retrospect, seems suspicious. For most of my 38 years, I’ve been an unrepentant literary snob. So why, as I hurtled toward the beauty and chaos of my son’s impending birth, did I suddenly find myself hopelessly obsessed with this hard-living, I-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-rules cop? What was Bosch to me? Could it simply be that the road to fatherhood is paved with mass-market paperbacks?

Growing up, I kindled my own ambitions of writing a novel. It would, of course, be something Big and Serious, more Infinite Jest than Da Vinci Code. Almost no one would read it, but those who did would be changed in subtle and irrevocable ways. My father was a fan of the bestselling white dudes beloved by dads the world over, dad-lit icons like Dean Koontz and Ken Follett. Maybe, he would gently suggest, I could write something like that — populist, commercial, entertaining! — in order to grease the wheels for the real literature that might follow.

The thought was disgusting to my teenage self. To sully craft and passion with something so base! He might as well have suggested I start selling crystal meth in order to fund a few years in the Peace Corps. My dad meant well, but he clearly didn’t understand artistic integrity. If success meant selling out, I’d rather starve.

Fast-forward a few decades: I’ve still yet to write a novel, though I’ve read enough of them to fill several small storage units. My dad passed away 10 years ago. My tastes have changed along the way, and I’d like to think I take myself a bit less seriously. I see no problem if Zadie Smith shares a shelf with Harlan Coben, Big Little Lies with Remembrance of Things Past (which I’ve never read and, who am I kidding, probably never will). It’s possible, of course, to enjoy both Chipotle and filet mignon, although I tried to keep my highs and lows balanced.

And yet the second I met Bosch last November I knew I was a goner. I gave in, gave up. I found myself buying the series in order, one by one, via Amazon Prime, with the self-deception of someone scoring loose cigarettes at the bodega. A new $7.99 mass-market paperback fell into my cart every few days, when I really should have just ordered the whole bunch together. If I finished a Bosch before the next arrived in the mail, I got cranky, fidgeted. I didn’t know what to do with my hands.

Daily life was a ball of stress. My wife and I — worriers both, if not full-blown catastrophists — had so many new fears to discover. It doesn’t help that the internet is basically a giant machine designed to breed anxiety for prospective parents. Weird sonogram shadows resolved, replaced by the waiting game of genetic tests. I was emailing neighborhood pre-K programs, inquiring about the future enrollment of my son who wasn’t quite born yet.

Throughout, Michael Connelly’s “methodical, traditional, superstitious” detective was an anchor.

Over the course of several months, I devoured a Bosch novel every 72 hours or so. A small stack grew in my living room. The satisfying thing about mass-market paperbacks is that, once finished, their spines shattered, they look more obliterated than read.

A friend of ours in her late 20s came over one afternoon and noticed the wobbly tower of beat-up books. “Ah, Michael Connelly,” she said. My heart leaped: Had I found an unexpected fellow traveler? “Nah,” she admitted. “I think my dad likes him ...”

So what the hell had happened to me? Why do dads love books like these? Why do I? From my present perch — proud papa of what is objectively the most adorable and intelligent 2-month-old in existence — I feel somewhat ready to psychoanalyze my own mania.

Part of the appeal of Bosch is, to be sure, the sense of a sane world where decency prevails by the bullet-riddled third act. It’s the same reason why so many people (not just dads) adore Law & Order: SVU. (No less than Hannah Gadsby and Roxanne Gay are superfans.) “Like most procedurals, SVU is beholden to a narrative formula,” Laura Barcella wrote in Rolling Stone, surveying the “soothingly formulaic rhythms” of the never-ending show. “In fact, part of the reason it feels so eerily comforting is because it serves as a sort of parallel universe where victims of unspeakable crimes are believed and often find justice.”

But forget about plot for a second. I’d venture that there’s something about Michael Connelly’s very prose that lends itself to a new parent’s internal clock. Readers get long stretches of boredom and repetition, of waiting around and dead-end interviews and paperwork and meals, punctuated by blasts of action that make your eyeballs shake — and that isn’t so far off from the lived experience of parenthood.

Though some of the Bosch novels were adapted into a popular Amazon TV franchise, that show lacks this unique flavor. Connelly’s books are pure police procedural, loosely defined as a type of writing that, obviously, focuses on the procedures that cops use to solve crimes. And yet Connelly’s plodding, almost brutal insistence on cataloging the mundane along with the dramatic makes his work something closer to a life procedural. A truly faithful cinematic adaptation of these books would be maddening. Entire episodes would pass with Bosch reading through old files until 4 am, drinking beer and listening to Art Pepper. Half the season would be spent sitting in traffic.

I’m not saying that Connelly is a boring writer, or that dads like to be bored as an antidote to the daily chaos of parenting. (Although: maybe.) But the surplus of details — the wild and implausible next to the insignificant — does have an undeniably pleasant effect.

Beyond this, reading Bosch provides an illusion of semi-pro mastery that might otherwise be lacking in a dad’s life. I may not know how to soothe my infant’s monstrous gas, but I have a basic understanding of how a detective’s murder book is organized. I could probably bullshit my way through a summer barbecue conversation that inexplicably turned to ballistics analysis.

I’m no longer just listening in to the baby monitor — I’m “monitoring our freeks,” because we armchair cops swim in a sea of jargon, slang, and acronyms. Our kid isn’t noisily breastfeeding, he’s taking a code 7. I’m not the only one prone to such weird cosplay; there’s a mini empire of brands out there that cater to dads who want to pretend that fatherhood is just like war, and they’re on the front lines.

Another, less comfortable theory I’ve been trying on for size: Bosch as substitute father figure. While the detective is played on television by the clean-shaven, handsomely battered Titus Welliver, Connelly’s Bosch — much like my own late father — sports curly hair and a mustache.

By the most recent novel, 2019’s The Night Fire, the aging detective is hobbling due to knee replacement surgery. He’s also suffering from Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia, courtesy of radioactive material he was exposed to back in 2007’s The Overlook.

Substitute “chronic” for “acute” and that’s what killed my dad. The scene where Bosch shares the diagnosis with his daughter Maddie in the middle of a crowded coffee shop is the only time Michael Connelly has made me cry. I’m still convinced, after years of Google-based sleuthing, that my father’s AML was kickstarted, not by rogue cesium, but by an underground oil tank that exploded in our suburban backyard.

It’s a truism that you can’t understand your own parents until you have a kid yourself, but my own compass had gone haywire. Here I was triangulating between memory and fiction, between Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch and Peter Bergen Indrisek. Maybe dad lit is just a blank canvas on which to project all our hopes and fears, our sappy nostalgia and our hazy vision of the future. Maybe — more likely — it’s just me.

If my father were still alive, I’d cherish this chance to bond over Michael Connelly’s hard-boiled cop hero. Instead, I’ve plowed through the series alone, much to my wife’s chagrin. “Bosch has been kidnapped!” I yelp, while her glare withers. Reading them as quickly as I did, the stories have all bled together. In my mind, Bosch is doing everything at once: searching for his daughter in Hong Kong; shooting a serial killer; going undercover as an opioid junkie; falling in, and out, of love, again.

In another life, I might have saved this stack of books for my own son to read when he’s older. “Someday,” I’d whisper, “all this shall be yours!” Instead, Bosch feels like a phase I’ve passed through, a case that will remain open but inactive.

I posted my paperback bounty on Craigslist’s free section, and a stranger named Kenneth came to take them away. Am I done with dad lit? It’s hard to say. There’s a good chance I’ll dabble in the rest of Michael Connelly’s back catalog, now that a global pandemic has us all hibernating indoors for the foreseeable future. But these past months, so full of anxious wonder, will be forever linked to Bosch. The LA detective’s motto, repeated whenever he has a chance? “Everybody counts, or nobody counts.” Thanks, Dad.

Scott Indrisek is a writer and editor living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.


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