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The definitive study of Scientology, by a Pulitzer-winning journalist


A review of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Introducing his controversial subject, Lawrence Wright reports that the Church of Scientology claims membership of 12 million, an assertion that has to be regarded as flimflammery. By contrast, “[a] survey of American religious affiliations compiled in the Statistical Abstract of the United States estimates that only 25,000 Americans actually call themselves Scientologists. That’s less than half the number identifying themselves as Rastafarians.”

Why, then, is Scientology such an object of fascination, not only to the American public but across much of Europe as well?

Obviously, the public’s unending worship of celebrity is a partial explanation, and Wright goes to the heart of this matter by devoting a large portion of Going Clear to the stories of Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and others who pass as luminaries in Hollywood today. Throughout its 60-year history, the Church of Scientology has focused laser-like on public personalities that would help it gain wider public attention and recruit new members. Wright’s intensive treatment of the Oscar-winning scriptwriter and director Paul Haggis — a member of the church for 35 years — clearly illuminates this fixation on stars and stardom.

But celebrity alone can’t explain the enduring interest in what is, at best, a minor fringe religion, and a particularly kooky one at that. The church apparently possesses a multi-billion-dollar real estate portfolio, with properties scattered across the globe, and the organization generates annual revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars. David Miscavige, who has been the undisputed leader of Scientology for a quarter-century and calls the shots at every turn, is thus for all intents and purposes a billionaire. Judging from what it costs the church to feed him and his wife, he lives like one, too.

Even so, what fascinates many of us about Scientology are not the halo of celebrity or the Church’s wealth. To me, at any rate, it’s the profound mystery how the Church could have survived so long despite the massive human rights abuses committed by its leaders for more than half a century. Among these are the frequent resort to physical abuse; involuntary confinement, sometimes for years on end; blackmail based on information revealed in Scientology’s equivalent of confession; child labor; and forced abortions when members of the Church’s equivalent of the priesthood, the Sea Org, become pregnant against Church policy. Though widely reported and documented in innumerable interviews and articles, these abuses are routinely denied by the Church — which tends to respond not with simple statements but, typically, with lawsuits. Scientology’s litigiousness is legendary.

The religion’s theology is equally mysterious. Leaked documents and reports by former Scientologists have revealed a litany of incomprehensible and preposterous tales that form the core of the church’s beliefs. The Founder, L. Ron Hubbard, was one of the most prolific writers of all time — Wright reports he is credited with having written more than 1,000 books — and was best known for his science fiction novels and stories. The theology of Scientology revolves around Hubbard’s claim that the universe is trillions of years old (not 13 billion, as scientists assert), and that the roots of humanity’s unhappiness lie in an incident 75 million years ago in the Galactic Federation. There, the evil overlord Xenu and his co-conspirators (mainly psychiatrists) “fed false information to the population to draw them into centers where Xenu’s troops could destroy them. ‘One of the mechanisms they used was to tell them to come in for an income-tax investigation,’ Hubbard related. ‘So in they went, and the troops started slaughtering them.'”

How nutty is that?

The simple truth is that L. Ron Hubbard was what I can only regard as a raving lunatic. A man who worked for years as his medical officer noted his “‘Paranoid personality. Delusions of grandeur. Pathological lying.'” All these traits are easy to see in Wright’s narrative, which reveals other disagreeable aspects of Hubbard’s behavior as well. He spent the last five years of his life in seclusion. “Fleeing subpoenas from three grand juries, and pursued by forty-eight lawsuits, all naming the founder, Hubbard slipped away from public view on Valentine’s Day, 1980.” And Hubbard’s successor, David Miscavige, though a very different person, clearly shares the Founder’s paranoia as well as his tendency to strike out violently at those around him. Hubbard was known to batter his first two wives, and Miscavige, a bodybuilder, has been frequently reported as beating his followers when displeased — hundreds of them, all told. For example, “Gale Irwin says she confronted him, and Miscavige knocked her to the ground with a flying tackle.” Later, Wright reports,  a Scientology executive “spoke up about the violence [and] was beaten by two of Miscavige’s assistants and made to mop the bathroom floor with his tongue.”

This leads to the greatest mystery of all: why does no one complain? Oh, there are many former Scientologists who talk freely about all these matters, but literally thousands of others who continue to participate in the Church (by enrolling in courses that cost them tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years). Wright finds the explanation in a simple core belief: “Scientologists are trained to believe that whatever happens to them is somehow their fault . . . The possibility that the leader of the church might be irrational or even insane was so taboo that no one could even think it, much less voice it aloud.” Wright elaborates: “Belief in the irrational is one definition of faith, but it is also true that clinging to absurd or disputed doctrines binds a community of faith together and defines a barrier to the outside world.” This is what Wright terms “the prison of belief.” It’s a terrifying concept that conjures up memories of the self-deluding Germans who followed Hitler.

One of the most publicized incidents in the history of Scientology was the announcement by the Internal Revenue Service in 1993 that it had restored the church’s tax-exemption (which had been removed in 1967). The reason for this IRS action, though undisclosed, was that Miscavige’s church had filed a total of some 2,500 lawsuits against the IRS and assigned private detectives to dig up embarrassing information about the private lives of many top IRS officials. In the face of this assault, which went on for years, consuming inordinate amounts of the government’s limited resources, the IRS caved when Miscavige agreed to drop all the lawsuits and remove the private investigators.

Wright makes it clear that the popular understanding of the IRS case — that the Church of Scientology wasn’t really a church — is in error. IRS staff had never been able to fashion a definition of religion that would exclude Scientology. After all, many, perhaps all other religions also make claims that non-believers find preposterous. I’m certain you and I could name at least a few.

Going Clear seals Lawrence Wright’s place as one of the preeminent nonfiction writers of our time. Just seven years ago his masterful book about Al Qaeda, The Looming Tower, won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. If anything, Going Clear represents an even greater accomplishment, putting to shame previous efforts to tell the story of Scientology. (I reviewed Inside Scientology not long ago.) Wright is a staff writer for The New Yorker.

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The Rodney King riots, war crimes, and a small-town power elite


A review of The Black Box, by Michael Connelly

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Harry Bosch never dies — but he gets older as Michael Connelly’s superb series of Los Angeles police procedurals continues growing longer. In The Black Box, the 18th of the Harry Bosch novels and the 33rd of Connelly’s books, Bosch’s mind is undimmed but his body is showing signs of age as he digs deeply into a 20-year-old mystery that haunted him as a cop on the beat.

Now a seasoned detective in the LAPD’s Open Unsolved Unit, Harry jumps at the chance to take a crack at the unsolved murder of Anneke Jesperson, a Danish war correspondent who mysteriously died of a gunshot during the Rodney King riots in South Central L.A. Harry and his partner had been called to the scene of her murder 20 years earlier but because there were so many victims they were forced to move on to yet another murder scene as soon as they’d called the coroner. However, once Harry has begun to dig his teeth into the scant evidence available, his boss in the Open Unsolved Unit begins an intense effort to force him off the case. As in so many of Harry’s cases, police politics has intervened, and he finds himself forced to battle the LAPD all the while he pursues the growing signs of a conspiracy in Jesperson’s murder and the involvement of war crimes in the case.

In most of the Harry Bosch stories, events unfold exclusively within Los Angeles. However, the Jesperson case takes Harry far afield into California’s Central Valley, where he is forced to confront the grim presence of a small town’s power elite. There, the story takes a turn reminiscent of the late Ross McDonald’s 18 Lew Archer novels, which I devoured when much younger.

As always, Harry’s dogged persistence wins the day, and Connelly’s spare but smoothly flowing writing is fully satisfying. In previous posts, I’ve reviewed two of Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, The Reversal here and The Drop here

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The best books I’ve read so far this year

You have to wait until December to see a list of “best books” in The New York Times Book Review, but right here in this space you can see my list for the first six months of 2012! Of course, it’s a short list, and quite specialized, since there are lots of categories of writing that hold no interest for me. And I don’t limit myself to books that were published after January 1, 2012 (though most were). After all, I’m not The New York Times. But, for what it is, here goes, in no particular order . . . with links to my reviews in this blog.


The Passage of Power, by Robert A. Caro. Volume 4 in The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Robert Caro’s masterful portrait of Lyndon Johnson’s early days as President.

Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, by David E. Sanger. Barack Obama’s foreign and military policy viewed from the inside.

The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World, by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan. The power of unreasonable people, and how they’re changing the world.

The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham. A brilliant contribution to the public debate about politics and the economy.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. One of the most important books published in English so far this century.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo. A searing look at poverty in India that reads like a novel.

The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Daniel Yergin. Daniel Yergin’s superb new book: a brilliant survey of energy issues.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann. Astonishing new evidence about the Americas before Columbus.

Trade Fiction

They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, by Christopher Buckley. Washington and Beijing get what they deserve in this satirical novel of politics and diplomacy today.

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read.

The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. An unsparing tale of life in the living hell of North Korea.

Incendiary, by Chris Cleave. A wrenching portrait of the human cost of terrorism.

The Fear Index, by Robert Harris. A taut thriller about the world of multibillion-dollar hedge funds.

A Theory of Small Earthquakes, by Meredith Maran. A first novel from a brilliant nonfiction writer.

Mysteries and Thrillers

Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst. A truly superior novel of espionage at the dawn of World War II.

The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson. The Pentagon and the CIA take a lot of punishment in this novel of rendition and torture.

Harbor Nocturne, by Joseph Wambaugh. Joseph Wambaugh’s latest paints Los Angeles in many clashing colors.

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith. An exceptional tale of Botswana’s #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

Buried Secrets, by Joseph Finder. A thriller that explores the intersection of high finance and high crime.

The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville. A grim story of war and betrayal in Northern Ireland.

The Bridge of Sighs, by Olen Steinhauer. A fully satisfying murder mystery set in post-war Europe.

Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky. Sara Paretsky’s latest detective story hits home.

Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George. Elizabeth George’s latest Inspector Lynley novel, unpredictable as always.

The Silent Oligarch, by Chris Morgan Jones. A refreshingly original new thriller that explores international intrigue with minimal violence.

Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith. A superb suspense novel set in the USSR, Afghanistan, and the U.S.

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Joseph Wambaugh’s latest paints Los Angeles in many clashing colors

A review of Harbor Nocturne, by Joseph Wambaugh

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

When you read Joseph Wambaugh on the endlessly diverse “coppers” of the LAPD or the equally colorful denizens of their turf, you know you’ve met the truth. Listen as he describes three of Hollywood’s zoned-out derelicts:

“Their shirts and trousers were so stained and filthy they’d lost their color and seemed to sprout from them like fungus. Two had splotchy skin with open sores, and there were not twenty teeth among them. As younger transients, they’d covered more territory than Lewis and Clark, but as they got older they’d begun to vaporize into spectres that nobody really saw until they spoke. The unholy ghosts of Hollywood Boulevard.”

No, the world of Joseph Wambaugh and his creations who people the Hollywood police station isn’t pretty. It’s wild, gritty, funny, outrageous, and above all endlessly surprising. Wambaugh has walked these streets. He knows whereof he writes.

The harbor of the title is the shore of San Pedro, a portion of the Port of Los Angeles. Two of the town’s younger residents, Dino Babich, a longshoreman, and his childhood buddy Hector Cozzo, reflect the variously Croatian and Italian history of the place, and their renewed relationship becomes a central factor in the plot.

The story Wambaugh tells revolves around human trafficking and prostitution — and the unsavory people who profit from it. The plot works well and offers up tension and surprises to the end. However, Harbor Nocturne is much less a novel of suspense than it is a character study of the Los Angeles Police Department, as embodied in the coppers of Hollywood Station. If there is an overarching theme to this novel, it’s the extraordinary diversity of Los Angeles today, where 200 languages are spoken. The book features characters of Mexican, Serbian, Italian, Croatian, Korean, Russian, Japanese, African, and Jewish as well as plain old white-bread European descent.

Harbor Nocturne is the fifth and most recent novel in Wambaugh’s Hollywood Station cycle, which began in 2006. Like its predecessors, Harbor Nocturne takes us inside the station and inside the heads of the cops who staff its evening and early-morning “midwatch.” Familiar characters from the earlier novels feature prominently here: the sun-bleached surfer cops “Flotsam and Jetsam”; aspiring actor “Hollywood Nate” Weiss; and young Britney Small, who earned the respect of the “OGs” — the Old Guys of the station — by shooting a violent offender to death. and wishing she’d gained it some other way.

Wambaugh, now 75, is the author of 20 previous books, 14 of them novels. From his very first novel, The New Centurions, in 1971, Wambaugh has been winning acclaim and selling books about the police in very large quantities. The man knows how to write!


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Michael Connelly’s latest: another thoroughly satisfying police procedural

A review of The Drop, by Michael Connelly

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

You might think that after writing 25 other novels and a slew of short stories Michael Connelly’s latest book would show at least a hint of boredom. Instead, the man keeps getting better and better. The Drop, Connelly’s 17th novel about Los Angeles police detective Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch, is one of his very best.

As you might expect in a series of such longevity, Harry is a complex character weighed down by layer upon layer of history. His history in the LAPD takes center stage in The Drop, as a challenging case brings him face to face with his old nemesis, a Deputy Chief of Police now sitting on the Los Angeles City Council and with his former partner, now an aide to the current Chief. If you’re not a Californian, you may not be aware that a seat on the L.A. City Council is a power base of the first order: members of Congress regard election to the Council as a promotion, and Councilmembers frequently run for statewide office. The upshot is that this brilliantly constructed novel revolves around the concept of “high jingo,” police jargon for the intersection of high-level politics with their work.

As the novel opens, Harry is a windower, raising his precocious 15-year-old daughter by himself, and nearing retirement from the LAPD. He holds a plum assignment in the Open Unsolved Unit. During a momentary lull in activity, he is assigned an especially difficult case involving apparently botched DNA analysis and a twenty-year-old rape and murder. No sooner has he begun digging into the mystifying circumstances of the DNA specimen than his old partner calls him from the chief’s office to inform him that the Chief insists he take on a new case: the Councilman’s son has apparently committed suicide, and the Councilman has unaccountably demanded that Harry be assigned to investigate what really happened. Enter stage left: high jingo.

Because Harry lives by the credo that “Everybody counts, or nobody counts,” he stubbornly works on both cases despite the Chief’s insistence he set aside everything else to pacify the Councilman. As the two intertwined investigations unfold with Harry’s customary secretiveness, practically everyone within his orbit becomes upset with him. And therein lies the tale — a particularly suspenseful and satisfying tale.


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A master of the mystery genre struts his stuff

A review of The Reversal, by Michael Connelly

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Since 1992, Los Angeles crime novelist has been coming out with one, and occasionally two, novels per year. With only a few exceptions, his protagonists have been drawn from a shifting and intersecting cast of characters in the LAPD, the Los Angeles legal community, and the FBI.

In Connelly’s latest novel, The Reversal, defense attorney Mickey Haller is in the spotlight, with his half-brother, Harry Bosch, a veteran homicide inspector, and Haller’s ex-wife, Maggie McPherson (“Maggie McFierce”), in key supporting roles. The trio takes on the prosecution of a child-killer convicted in 1986 and just released from prison on an appeal based on newly reviewed DNA evidence.

The Reversal is brilliantly plotted, with suspense building from the first page to the last. The basic elements of the story are told in the first person from Haller’s voice, the rest in the third person from Bosch’s perspective. It’s a masterful job — another superb piece of work from one of the genre’s proven masters.

ISBN-10: 0316069485

ISBN-13: 978-0316069489


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Life on the streets of Hollywood

A review of Hollywood Hills by Joseph Wambaugh

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Chalk up another successful novel in Joseph Wambaugh’s continuing saga of the fascinating “coppers” in the country’s most colorful police precinct, the guys and gals of Hollywood Station. In an earlier post I reviewed the three previous novels in this ongoing story (http://malwarwickonbooks.com/?s=Joseph+Wambaugh), back when I was so foolish as to assume that they constituted a trilogy. Not so, clearly: there’s just too much life left in the surfer cops, Flotsam and Jetsam; Hollywood Nate, who is still chasing after stardom with his SAG card; and even the Oracle, whose portrait stands on the wall of the squad room amid the movie posters — and the Oracle actually died somewhere along the way, victim of a massive heart attack after 46 years on the job.

There’s a plot to Hollywood Hills, just as there was in every one of its three predecessors, but this is a novel about people, not events. There’s just enough action to drive the characters from the opening page to the very end, showing their stuff along the way.You may wonder what happens next, but you’re likely to be far more curious about how things turn out for Flotsam, Jetsam, Hollywood Nate, and that young female rookie cop.

Like so many of Joseph Wambaugh’s police procedurals, Hollywood Hills charms with what it reveals about the nitty-gritty of life on the front line of the Los Angeles Police Department. Because these coppers are uniformed officers — street cops — not high-powered detectives or police politicians. Clearly, Joseph Wambaugh has stayed closely in touch with the Department he left as a detective sergeant nearly half a century ago.

ISBN-10: 031612950X

ISBN-13: 978-0316129503

ASIN: B0047Y17GQ

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Crime and corruption under the lights of Hollywood

A review of A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.’s Scandalous Coming-of-Age, by Richard Rayner

@@@ (3 out of 5)

If this book had been a straightforward narrative account of L.A.’s history from the end of the First World War through the Great Depression, it could have been brilliant. The two central characters, in all their indulgences and idiosyncrasies, beautifully embody the tale of crime and corruption, fame and its misfortunes, all under the brilliant lights of Hollywood.

But A Bright and Guilty Place is two books, really. One is that account from an experienced Los Angeles journalist, a tensely written history that deftly conveys a distant reality through the intersecting paths of two men, one an investigator-turned-pulp fiction writer, the other a promising attorney seduced by the glitter of Los Angeles. The other is a work of literary analysis, with the author dissecting the works of Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, and other lesser-known L.A. writers who established the conventions of the “hard-boiled detective novel” — and attempting to add depth and insight to the history by citing their observations.

The story at the center of A Bright and Guilty Place is that of Leslie White (the investigator) and Dave Clark (the lawyer), and it focuses on the two-year period in which they collaborated in the office of the Los Angeles District Attorney on a series of celebrated trials. The characters for whom they worked — as well as the ones they brought to justice — were straight out of Chinatown, which the author seems to regard as a faithful portrait of official L.A. in the 1920s and 1930s. “The System” ruled. At its helm was a crime boss, Charlie Crawford, who never looked the part, and rarely acted it, either. Charlie called the shots, with the mayor, the police chief, the D.A., and practically everyone else who mattered in official L.A. doing his bidding — right up until someone shot and killed him with a .38 revolver. But who killed Charlie Crawford was never much of a mystery. The man who did it was none other than celebrated trial attorney Dave Clark. Therein lies the tale.

ISBN-10: 0385509707

ISBN-13: 978-0385509701


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Joseph Wambaugh’s Hollywood Police Saga

1@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Joseph Wambaugh, who is pushing 75 now, has been acclaimed as a writer of both novels and nonfiction about police and crime in Los Angeles for nearly 40 years. While still at work as a detective sergeant in 1971, his first novel, The New Centurions, was published. It was nearly that long ago (1973) when I first read The Onion Field, his true-crime story of the kidnapping of two L.A. police officers and its profoundly sad consequences. Though most of Wambaugh’s work has been fiction, it was only a few years ago that he returned to writing novels about the LAPD. First came Hollywood Station in 2007, followed in 2008 and 2009 by two closely related novels, Hollywood Crows and Hollywood Moon. Perhaps more are on the way in this outstanding series of books.

Wambaugh is superbly talented. His ear for dialogue, his psychological insight, his knowledge about both criminals and police, his gift of language — all become unmistakably clear in these three engrossing novels. He has mastered the craft of writing fiction, but these books transcend craft with credible, full-bodied characters and graceful style.

What is most compelling in this saga of the men and women of Hollywood Station are the recurring characters. Read these books, and you’ll come to know and appreciate the two surfer cops, known only as Flotsam and Jetsam. For example, Jetsam says to his partner about a bowling alley that has come up in one of many conversations about how the two surfers can meet women, “I mean, there’s gotta be opportunities on those lanes for coppers as coolaphonic and hormonally imaginative as the almost four hundred pounds of male heat riding in this car.” And that’s one of the more easily understood passages in Flotsam and Jetsam’s never-ending dialogue. Then there’s Hollywood Nate Weiss, an aspiring actor with a love for mirrors and hopes for a SAG card; The Oracle, a 46-year veteran sergeant with the insight of a sensitive psychiatrist; a Ukranian-immigrant detective whose inventive use of the English language would do Mrs. Malaprop proud; and several strong, smart women officers, all struggling to keep their pride and their patience in a blatantly sexist environment.

And those are just the cops! The miscreants include street people like Trombone Teddy, formerly a well-known jazz sideman; crystal meth “tweakers” and other addicts, many of them eking out a meager existence by wearing Batman, Superman, Hulk, or Spiderman costumes and cadging tips from camera-wielding tourists near Graumann’s Chinese Theater; and the ex-cons and other ambitious operators whose imaginative schemes are the stuff of the clever plots in these three novels. In fact, you’ll probably learn more than enough about the identity-theft scams and other cons Wambaugh describes to scare the living daylights out of you.

ISBN-10: 0446401242

ISBN-13: 978-0446401241

ISBN-10: 044650582X

ISBN-13: 978-0446505826

ISBN-10: 0316045187

ISBN-13: 978-0316045186


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Nine Dragons, by Michael Connolly

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Michael Connolly’s hero-cop, Harry Bosch, wends his way through a deeply personal crisis in this fast-moving tale of murder and human trafficking that speeds from Los Angeles to Hong Kong and back. In pursuing his suspect in the murder of a South Los Angeles liquor store owner, a Chinese immigrant, Harry follows the trail of the suspect’s triad affiliation across the Pacific — only to find that his 13-year-old daughter, Maddie, has been abducted, almost certainly by the triad. And the story grows more complicated from that point on, as Harry flies to Hong Kong to rush through a “39-hour day” searching for his daughter.

Connolly’s Harry Bosch novels stand out from the usual run of hard-boiled detective stories for the depth of his hero’s feelings that come to light in his ongoing inner dialogue. As Connolly writes in a “bonus” commentary on the Kindle Edition, “Nine Dragons is about Harry and his daughter. It’s about his hopes for her, his guilt over his poor performance as a father, and most of all it is about his vulnerability as a father.”

Nine Dragons comes to life most vividly during Harry’s weekend stay in Hong Kong, far from his usual haunts not just geographically but also culturally. There, Connolly’s research yields up a fascinating look at the city’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods, and at the triads that dominate life there. (Triads are secret Chinese associations with political roots hundreds of years in China’s past. Today, the triads are criminal organizations often engaged in extortion, smuggling, human trafficking, drugs, and though still based in China, they are active in many countries around the world.)

I’ve read a number of the Harry Bosch novels. I’ll read more.

ISBN-10: 0316166316

ISBN-13: 978-0316166317

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