By Maureen Corrigan
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 25, 2009
By Michael Connelly
Little, Brown. 419 pp. $27.99
Stop the presses! There's a serial killer on the loose in the new Michael Connelly novel, "The Scarecrow"!
Hold on for even more sinister news: There are practically no presses left to stop!
Such is the grisly work of an altogether different kind of serial killer, the unconventional fiend of Connelly's latest thriller. Call it the Internet, the Corporate Bottom Line or the Dumbed-Down Spirit of the Age. It's an amorphous ghoul on a rampage, gutting our major American dailies of reporters and content. The corpses of once proud newspapers lie piled up in the shadowy corners of Connelly's novel, which opens with the ongoing evisceration of the Los Angeles Times.
Sure, the human serial killer grabs the headlines for most of this exquisitely plotted story: He's a standard-issue sicko who murders women and cleverly stages the crime so that an innocent man takes the rap. But the most inspired feature of "The Scarecrow" is that it's also a meditation on the consequences of the death of print journalism.
What a difference 13 years makes. Back then, Jack McEvoy was a restless young crime reporter for the Rocky Mountain News. Here's Jack describing his daily research routine at the opening of Connelly's terrific 1996 novel, "The Poet":
"Stacked on my desk next to the computer was a foot-high pile of newspapers. This was my main source material for stories. I subscribed to every daily, weekly and monthly newspaper published from Pueblo north to Bozeman. I scoured these for small stories on killings that I could turn into long take outs. There were always a lot to choose from."
Now Jack returns in "The Scarecrow," and the intervening years have not been kind. Sure, he got a book deal out of his deadly game of wits with the serial killer known as the Poet, and his fame propelled him to a star reporter's job at the L.A. Times, but Jack in middle age is a disappointed fellow. His one brief marriage ended in divorce; he's still carrying an Olympic-size torch for Rachel Walling, the lovely FBI agent who saved his neck in "The Poet"; and, at the beginning of this novel, he's just gotten the ax from a paper obsessed with downsizing. According to Jack, reporters used to call the L.A. Times "The Velvet Coffin" because it was "a place to work so pleasurable that you would easily slip in and stay till you died. With the constant changes of ownership and management, the layoffs, and the ever-dwindling staff and budget, the place was now becoming more of a pine box."
Jack swallows his pride and accepts management's offer to stave off his departure by two weeks if he'll train his own replacement, a glamorous blonde fresh out of journalism school. But in the course of working with her on a joint profile of a teenage killer and his victim, Jack realizes the kid, rotten as he may be, didn't commit the murder. Instead, a serial killer is loose -- one with a predilection for wrapping his female victims in plastic and stuffing them in the trunks of cars.
The plot of "The Poet" turned on a ruse involving a fax machine; in "The Scarecrow," the macabre netherworld of the Internet takes center stage. One of the most genuinely "I-forgot-to-breathe" scenes in this novel occurs when Jack, during a car trip into the Nevada desert, is electronically hunted and cut off from the outside world by the killer, who's adept at breaching computer passwords and canceling phone accounts and credit cards. With its ingenious story line and the twisted brilliance of the creeps involved, "The Scarecrow" holds its own with its predecessor, which was a breakthrough novel for Connelly.
By the end, the Internet has served as an agent of both evil and redemption -- even for Jack, who moves on to a Web site reporting gig. But while the bodies of the victims targeted by the monster known as the Scarecrow fade into hard-boiled oblivion, the husks of once-vital newspapers hollowed out by the Electronic Revolution continue to rattle forlornly in the wind.
Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches a course in detective fiction at Georgetown University.