As a journalist, I'm not sure what I found more chilling in Michael Connelly's new thriller, The Scarecrow: the serial killer of the title or the book's vivid portrayal of a newspaper in its death throes. The Scarecrow's narrator is Jack McEvoy, the main character of Connelly's 1996 novel The Poet. In that book, McEvoy, a crime reporter for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, pursued another titular serial killer — and nearly got himself killed doing so.
He also got a bestselling book out of the experience, and that led him to being hired as an "overpaid cop reporter" at the Los Angeles Times — where Connelly worked as a cop reporter himself before becoming a bestselling novelist.
Lucky for McEvoy he went to L.A., since the Rocky Mountain News folded this year. But the earthquake in the newspaper business is hitting the L.A. Times as well, and McEvoy finds himself "pinked." He's the 99th of 100 laid-off employees on the "30 list," a reference to the old-school newsroom custom of indicating the end of a story by typing "--30--."
Adding insult to injury, his bosses ask him to stick around for two weeks to train his replacement. McEvoy decides he'll do his best to go out in a blaze of glory and starts looking for the story that will make them sorry they drop-kicked him.
He doesn't think a brief he wrote about a recent "trunk murder" — a woman's body found in the trunk of her stolen car — is anything special, even when the grandmother of the young drug dealer arrested in the case calls McEvoy to insist the kid is innocent. He can't count how many times he has gotten that phone call.
As he tells his replacement, in L.A. the annual murder toll usually tops 400, so it takes more than an exotic dancer being kidnapped, raped and strangled with a clothesline to make front page headlines.
The replacement, Angela Cook, is an ambitious, lovely youngster who has done a brief stint at the St. Petersburg Times. (Thanks to Connelly, who lives in the Tampa Bay area, for the shoutout, and for the one in Chapter Two to two St. Petersburg Times sports columnists.)
More important, Angela is a "mojo": "a mobile journalist nimbly able to file from the field via any electronic means. She could file text or photos for the Website or paper, or video and audio for television and radio partners. … Never mind the stories that would be missed because she had no sources. Never mind how many times she would be set up and manipulated by the police brass, who knew an opportunity when they saw it."
McEvoy doesn't waste much time being bitter, though, since that trunk murder soon begins to take on other dimensions. The chapters narrated by McEvoy in first person are intercut with third-person chapters about a man named Carver, chief technology officer and "threat engineer" at a high-security data storage company in another state. Carver has uses for the Internet no mojo in the newsroom has yet imagined.
McEvoy's pursuit of the trunk murder story also leads him to join forces once again with Rachel Walling. The sexy FBI agent was involved — and I do mean involved — with McEvoy on the Poet case. Their affair soon resumes, even though Rachel was disciplined by the agency for her previous relationship with him.
Rachel's quite the femme fatale (well, not quite fatale, so far) — fans of Connelly's Harry Bosch books will know her from her tumultuous relationship with Bosch. I'm just waiting for her hookup with Mickey Haller, another Connelly series character.
McEvoy soon moves from the attenuated newsroom — scary enough with its twitchy reporters, empty desks and darkened outer reaches — to a chase that leads from L.A.'s mean streets (including the one he lives on) to the raw, sprawling cities of the desert Southwest.
Connelly masterfully whips the reader back and forth between McEvoy's point of view and the killer's, accelerating the pace as the full threat to McEvoy and Rachel becomes clearer.
The Scarecrow is Connelly in top form. And reading it will make it impossible for you to ever again think that when you do something online, no one's watching.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs. tampabay.com/arts.