As I am not usually a fan of “reporter” books, I did not think I would be enthralled by Michael Connelly’s latest novel. THE SCARECROW is just that, marking the return of crime reporter Jack McEvoy after lo these many years, last seen in 1996’s THE POET. I am pleased to report that this new title easily surpassed my not-so-high expectations.
McEvoy is a legendary but nonetheless realistic reporter for a fictitious newspaper called the Los Angeles Times (any relation between Connelly’s creation and the real-world version would be strictly coincidental). McEvoy’s chief claim to fame is his series of stories regarding a serial murderer nicknamed The Poet, and McEvoy’s ultimate involvement in the sequence of events that led to The Poet’s death. As THE SCARECROW begins, however, McEvoy’s world has moved ahead. His book regarding the story, also entitled THE POET, has been long out of print, and he has never had a front-page, top-fold story byline, notwithstanding his more than solid reputation as a first-class journeyman crime reporter.
What is significant for McEvoy is that in his world, as in this one, the age of the print newspaper is reaching its end. In some of his best writing to date, Connelly describes how the newsroom as we know it is gradually winding down and the consequences that follow. One of these is that McEvoy is unceremoniously kicked to the curb with a two-week separation notice. His final assignment, to train a fresh-faced and eager rookie reporter, is a humiliating one. But McEvoy wants to go out with a bang, and discovers an interesting story with which to bring his career to a climax. The core of the story consists of an L.A. Police Department press release concerning the arrest and confession of Alonzo Winslow, a 16-year-old drug dealer, for the murder of a stripper. Winslow is, from all accounts, an irredeemable waste of skin. Yet McEvoy finds that the arrest report demonstrates that Winslow did not actually confess to murdering the woman, contrary to what is contained in the press release.
In the course of researching the case, McEvoy discovers a second murder occurring in Nevada some years before that is so similar in terms of execution, and in resemblance to Winslow’s alleged victim, that for both individuals to have been murdered by different assailants would be beyond the realm of coincidence. In the Nevada case, the victim’s ex-husband was tried and convicted, and is incarcerated. Accordingly, he could not have committed any subsequent murders, including the one with which Winslow is charged. And Winslow may be innocent as well. When McEvoy travels to Nevada to investigate the earlier homicide, he sets off a series of events that pits an unseen, unknown adversary --- the real killer of both women, and several other victims as well --- against McEvoy and a totally unexpected ally.
The actual culprit is the Scarecrow, an MIT graduate named Wesley Carver who oversees security for an Internet website maintenance and data storage firm. The reader meets Carver immediately, but he is operating so far beneath the radar that no one knows who he is, let alone what he is doing. Sitting where he is, doing what he does, Carver is aware that McEvoy is looking for him even before McEvoy knows himself, and, more importantly, before McEvoy truly realizes what terrible danger he is in. When McEvoy makes a horrific discovery --- one that comes close to placing him under suspicion of murder himself --- the pursuit of the Scarecrow becomes personal. The Scarecrow remains one step ahead, even as McEvoy, relying on his keen powers of observations and instinct, stays on his trail.
Connelly is nothing short of amazing in THE SCARECROW, building the story somewhat slowly in the beginning before introducing explosive revelations, twists and turns, which increase in frequency and intensity. There are a number of pleasant surprises here, especially for readers who fondly remember THE POET. Connelly leaves open the possibility, if not the promise, of more to come from McEvoy. If all of this is not enough for you, he also takes a sub-plot line that he briefly set up in his fine Harry Bosch novels and advances it a step or so, teasing the reader with it but saving a possible revelation for another day. And speaking of revelations, THE SCARECROW includes the first 14 pages of NINE DRAGONS, the next Harry Bosch book, which will be published later this year. One could not reasonably ask for more.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011