Monday Motivation: A lesson in restraint and suspense

 In Monday Motivation

Here’s a lesson in restraint and suspense from that master of both, Michael Connelly:

In Chapter 3 of his latest police procedural, The Late Show, which features a brand new protagonist, the feisty Renée Ballard, the first reference is made to a “bad history” she has with one Robert Olivas, head of a specialized homicide team on the Los Angeles police force. It stemmed, we’re told, “from her assignment to his team four years earlier when he was promoted to the unit from Major Narcotics.” That history, Connelly adds, is what landed her on the graveyard shift working from dusk to dawn in a dead-end situation.

Connelly doesn’t tell us what that “bad history” is.

A few pages on, one of her colleagues warns her that talking to Olivas won’t help her on her current case. There’s still no explanation.

A few pages later, she does talk to Olivas, but with “a feeling of dread building in her chest.”

We still don’t know what happened between them.

Several pages in, there’s a partial explanation: “For nearly five years, (she and Chastain) had been partners in the Homicide Special Section, until Chastain had chosen not to back Ballard in the complaint she had filed against Olivas.”

But we still don’t know what that complaint was about – and Connelly very carefully keeps that information in reserve.

The effect of this restraint is to increase our curiosity. What could possibly explain the barbed animosity between the detective and the Lieutenant? What could the complaint have been about? Why had her partner betrayed her? The questions multiply, and as they do so, the suspense mounts.

All this happens, mind you, while Ballard pursues a variety of other villains.

Several pages on, we learn that Chastain had “made choices based on political and bureaucratic expediency, not right and wrong. Ballard had learned that the hard way.”

What had he done? Connelly declines to supply an answer. Read on, he suggests. Be patient.

Well, of course we’re not patient. But we do read on. And learn, in due course, after she finds herself confronting her nemesis, that “(t)his was the first time she had stood face-to-face with Olivas since she had filed the complaint against him two years before. She felt a mixture of dread and anger as she looked at his angular features.”

But nothing else.

We get a hint a couple of chapters on when, after a long paddle on her surfboard in the ocean, she looks at her reflection and regards her “broken, flyaway hair that she kept no longer than chin length… It went well with her tan and gave off a slightly butch look that reduced advances from other officers. Olivas had been an exception.”

Aha. He’d hit on her, we think. But we need to know the circumstances, we need to know why that was such a big deal in Ballard’s life.

And we read on. And finally, finally, in Chapter 16, nearly half-way through the book, everything is revealed when Ballard lets Olivas have it with both barrels:

‘“We both know exactly what happened,”’ she tells him. ‘“You made it clear on more than one occasion that my trajectory in the department relied upon you and that I had to put out or I’d get pushed out. Then at the Christmas party, I get pushed up against a wall and you try to put your tongue down my throat…’”

There we have it. As clear a case of sexual harassment as you’re likely to find. And since she didn’t “put out”, she was relegated to the graveyard shift and her career went into reverse.

Now this reticence on Connelly’s part, this reluctance of his to spell out the reason for the anger that his character feels towards her former superior, is no accident. He deliberately engineers the slow burn of his dramatic fuse across nearly half his novel. It goes to the heart of his character’s overwhelming desire to prove herself, it explains her ambition, and it motivates her driving desire to crack the big case being investigated by her former boss, and to which she has been denied access.

Plus, of course, it turns what is already a suspenseful police thriller into an absolute page-turner.

Happy writing,

Richard

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