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BOOK REVIEW

'The Scarecrow' by Michael Connelly

Jack McEvoy has one more murder story to write and one more killer to catch -- before he leaves the L.A. Times for good.

May 27, 2009|Tim Rutten

The novels and short stories we conveniently pigeonhole as "genre fiction" often are the tripwires of our literature's social consciousness.

It's unsurprising, therefore, that the first fictional work to take the newspaper industry's agonizing decline as its backdrop is a mystery, nor that its author, Michael Connelly, is a onetime crime reporter who spent the last years of his print career at the Los Angeles Times. He's one of the masters of contemporary crime fiction with a Stakhanovite work ethic that must have delighted his city room editors as much as it now does his legions of fans. "The Scarecrow" is his 20th novel and 21st book since 1993. It's also his best work since "The Poet" 13 years ago and revives that bestselling novel's main character, newspaper police reporter Jack McEvoy.

Back then, McEvoy was toiling for Denver's Rocky Mountain News -- now closed, as this new book acknowledges -- and since has published a bestselling true crime book and been hired onto the staff of the Los Angeles Times at a big salary. These days, that's like having a large target painted on your back, and "The Scarecrow" opens with McEvoy being called into a supercilious assistant managing editor's office and given notice that he's being laid off -- with a two-week grace period to train his replacement, a newly minted J-school grad with dewy cheeks and an ability to file with equal superficiality to every online, broadcast and hand-held "platform" imaginable.

McEvoy agrees to the arrangement, partly because he needs the checks and partly because he hopes to convey to his young replacement something of the "nobility" he believes the best of his cop sources keep so well-concealed. Before much of that can occur, though, a rambling phone call from the relative of a murder suspect (concerning whose arrest Jack has written a brief item) sets him on the trail of a chilling serial killer in a quest to do one final blowout murder story that will serve as "the tombstone" for his newspaper career. Along the way, he'll be reunited with an old flame, FBI profiler Rachel Walling (as Connelly fans will recall, she's also had a fling with tormented detective Harry Bosch), and he'll find himself pursued, in turn, by a master manipulator of the same new cyber culture that's killing the newspapers he loves.

To reveal more would undercut the pleasures of Connelly's masterful narrative, which proceeds in alternate chapters -- Jack's in the first person; the Scarecrow's in the third, which adds to this particularly chilling heavy's creepy aspect. It's a terrific device. Connelly always has been frank about his admiration for Raymond Chandler. It's a high bar to set for oneself, but he comes as close to clearing it as any mystery writer of his generation.

This paper was a big place when Connelly worked here and, despite the overlap, we never met. (Nowadays, with the staff less than half the size it was then, you can pretty easily memorize all your colleagues' blood types.) Still, his success always has seemed one of the important coda to The Times' now vestigial tradition of attaching a special value to narrative journalism, to the way it nourished -- some would say indulged -- the talents that produced it and to the reputation it once enjoyed throughout the industry as "a writer's newspaper."

Irish fans

In Ireland, some years ago, I wandered into a small but well-stocked Cork city bookshop that sells only true crime and mystery novels and spotted a few paperback edition copies of a book I'd co-written.

Surprised, I asked the owner whether she'd sold many copies. "They're all gone but those on the shelf," she said, and -- when I mentioned that I was the co-author -- she asked me to sign the four that remained.

"Would you still be a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, then?" she asked, as I scrawled my name in that caricature of the Palmer Method that drove at least three nuns to confess the sin of despair.

"I am," I said.

"Do you know Mike Connelly, so?" she asked. I confessed that I didn't.

"Ah," she sighed, "he's very popular here." I suppose the name doesn't hurt, I quipped. "No," she said. "It's the way he does Los Angeles -- all strange and gritty and magical all at once. Does he get it right, Los Angeles?"

"Spot on," I replied.

"I knew it, so," she said, smiling broadly around that quick intake of breath with which Cork women punctuate their sentences.

A few discrepancies

And so he does through most of "The Scarecrow," though six years' absence and 3,000 miles of distance (Connelly lives in Florida now) make for the occasional bobble. Sadly, it's been a long time since anybody came to newspaper journalism because "deep down, every journalist wants to be a novelist. It's the difference between art and craft. Every writer wants to be considered an artist. . . . "

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