Death watch

Michael Connelly's newspaper elegy
By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  May 19, 2009


There are three corpses in Michael Connelly's new novel, each one a victim of a serial killer who finds his prey over the Internet. But the real murder victim here is the American newspaper.

The Scarecrow begins with Jack McEvoy — the crime reporter who was the hero of Connelly's 1996 The Poet being given two weeks' notice at the Los Angeles Times. He's expected to spend his last days training his replacement: a young reporter whose real advantage, for the bosses, is that her salary is much lower than Jack's. "She's very good and she's hungry," the paper's veteran city editor tells Jack, "but she doesn't have the chops. Not yet, at least, and that's the problem, isn't it? The newspaper is supposed to be the community's watchdog and we're turning it over to the puppies. Think of all the great journalism we've seen in our lifetimes. The corruption exposed, the public benefit. Where's that going to come from now with every paper in the country getting shredded? Our government? No way. TV, the blogs? Forget it. My friend who took the buyout in Florida says corruption will be the new growth industry without the papers watching."

The Scarecrow | by Michael Connelly | Little, Brown | 448 Pages | $27.99

That bitterness is not dispelled over the course of the book. Jack decides that the ultimate "fuck you" to the paper will be a final story so good that the suits will look like fools to fire him. He decides on the case of a teen gangbanger charged with a stripper's rape and murder. It doesn't take long for Jack to suss out that the police have the wrong man, and to link the murder with another that makes it clear both are the work of a serial killer.

The Scarecrow is swift and engrossing, and it marks a development that has needed to happen in Connelly's novels for a while. His great weakness as a writer has always been his inability to resist giving his plots one final twist. In The Poet, this tendency was so pronounced it wound up throwing you right out of the book — which, till the final sections, is Connelly's most ingenious and scariest.

But the real meat here is the elegy for the newspaper business (a subject The Scarecrow shares with the recent films State of Play and The Soloist). Which does not preclude Connelly from being disgusted at the way newspapers are run. "It was a black-on-white crime," Jack muses on the murder he's investigating, "but still the desk didn't care, because the victim was a drug user. Both she and her killer were marginalized by the paper. You start cruising down to South L.A. to buy heroin or rock cocaine and what happens happens. You won't get any sympathy from the gray lady on Spring Street. There isn't much space in the paper for that. Six inches inside is all you're worth and all you get."

There is an unintended irony at work in The Scarecrow: the contention that a paper would be too embarrassed to fire any staffer whose work merited a Pulitzer. Among this year's Pulitzer winners is reporter Paul Giblin of the Mesa (Arizona) East Valley Tribune. Three months before receiving the prize, Giblin was fired. And the body count grows.

MICHAEL CONNELLY + GEORGE PELECANOS | Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard St, Brookline | May 28 @ 6 pm | $5 | 617.566.6660 or

Related: Pulp fiction, Fiend footage festival, Interview: John Hodgman, More more >
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