By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 22, 2009
When Michael Connelly decided to set his 20th crime novel, "The Scarecrow," amid the wreckage of the American newspaper industry, he didn't know how much grief he was letting himself in for.
Oh, the former South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Los Angeles Times reporter knew about the bitterness and angst pervading the news business these days. He'd seen friends ejected from jobs as "reductions in force" devastated newsrooms. He knew he could build a plot around riffed cop-shop reporter Jack McEvoy -- the protagonist of his 1996 novel "The Poet" -- wanting to break one last big murder story before cleaning out his desk.
What Connelly didn't know was that he'd have to yank his novel back from his publisher not once but twice as his death-of-newspapers angle was overtaken by events.
The first disruption came late last fall, a few days after he turned in his manuscript.
In "The Poet" McEvoy works at the Rocky Mountain News, but in "The Scarecrow" he has moved on to the Los Angeles Times. On Dec. 8, the Times' corporate owner, the Tribune Co., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Get me rewrite!
The second event came at the end of February, which was almost too late for Connelly. He was in Florida, where he now lives, "at the first game of spring ball for the New York Yankees," when his sister texted from Colorado to say that McEvoy's old paper had died.
"Like most of the staffers at the Rocky Mountain News," Connelly says, he had assumed that the Rocky "was going to be in existence" when his book came out. He'd written a scene in which, after McEvoy gets laid off by the Times, a sympathetic Rocky editor offers him his old job back.
Connelly called his editor at Little, Brown. He learned that "The Scarecrow" was "locked" and about to be printed. He would have to write his fix that night and confine it to a single page. In the reworked version, instead of a job offer, McEvoy gets a depressing message on his answering machine:
"I've gotta tell you the truth, man. There's nothing out there," the voice of his newly jobless Rocky colleague informs him. "I'm just about ready to start selling cars, but all the car dealers are in the toilet, too."
It was a scary time. The book wouldn't hit the stores for 2 1/2 months.
And if the New York Times Co., say, were to carry through on its April threat to pull the plug on the Boston Globe -- a nightmare scenario that McEvoy would surely "have in his thoughts" -- well, there would be nothing a deadline-busting novelist could do.
* * *
Connelly is 52 now, a big man with whitening hair who still seems most comfortable with his shirt untucked. It's easy to see him as the newsroom denizen he was for 14 years.
What's not as easy to see, beneath the extra-casual exterior, is the driven writer who from the very beginning saw journalism as a steppingstone.
He was born in Philadelphia but moved to Florida at 11 and considers Fort Lauderdale his home town. Five years later, as he drove himself back from a late-night dishwashing job, a fleeting encounter with crime changed his life.
"What if I hadn't looked out my car window that night when I was sixteen?" Connelly muses in the introduction to "Crime Beat," a collection of his newspaper stories. Who knows? Perhaps he'd have followed his father into the construction business.
But he did look, and he saw a bearded man wearing boots and a lumberjack shirt "running full speed toward the beach." The man peeled off the shirt, wrapped it around "something he had been clutching in his hand" and shoved the bundle into a hedge.
Connelly stopped, pulled out the bundle and found a gun.
Soon he was telling his story to police detectives. Later that night, they rounded up some suspects and asked him to pick out the running man. He couldn't do it -- "they didn't have the guy" -- which annoyed the detectives.
Never mind. He was hooked.
He started reading the newspapers, then true-crime books, then crime novels. "I lived in this kind of weird fantasy where I was like those cops I spent the night with," he says. At the University of Florida, he fell in love with Robert Altman's film of "The Long Goodbye" and started reading Raymond Chandler.
Finally, with some trepidation, he told his parents that he was abandoning his two years of study in building-construction engineering to pursue what he knew was a "long shot at best": writing crime fiction.
The reaction he got was "one of the big surprises of my life," Connelly says. It turned out his father had dreamed of being a painter. He'd gotten into the Art Institute of Philadelphia but had to shift gears to support his family. His only question was practical -- how do you prepare for a career like that? -- and he came up with the answer himself:
"Why don't you become a reporter and get a press pass?"
It sounded like a plan.
After graduating, Connelly put in a year at the Daytona Beach News-Journal, then moved to the Sun-Sentinel, where he wrote crime stories with headlines like "The Mail-Order Murders," "Billy the Burglar" and "Lauderdale Homicide."
"The thing people realized about Mike really quickly was his ability to capture detail," says his old friend Scott Anderson, then a fellow Sun-Sentinel reporter.
The thing people didn't realize was that Connelly was writing crime fiction on the side, pecking away on an early desktop computer. "I wrote two books set in Fort Lauderdale," he says. "No one's ever read them except me."
A high-profile magazine story won him interviews at the Chicago Tribune, the Rocky Mountain News and the Los Angeles Times. In 1988, he started a job at the Times, a newspaper so rich and reporter-friendly that it was known as "the Velvet Coffin." Once there, the idea was, you stayed for life.
After 6 1/2 more years of mostly crime stories -- "Death for Death," "Killing of Spouse Puts an End to Man's Double Life," "Who Shot Vic Weiss?" -- he had published three novels and finished a fourth, all starring a Los Angeles Police Department detective, Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch.
What the heck did he need a newsroom for?
The answer seemed less obvious at the time, though. The Bosch series, while a critical success, wasn't selling that well yet. And Connelly had mixed feelings about cutting the journalism cord.
"I stayed probably two years longer than I needed to," he says. For one thing, "I thought my press pass was giving me access to what I needed for my books.
"But I also knew I was part of a really good thing. I was part of a newspaper you could be proud of every day."
A few weeks after Connelly left the Times, a major earthquake hit Los Angeles and he felt "really weird" not jumping in his car to report it. He missed the camaraderie of the newsroom, not to mention the decibel level, and found himself writing with his window open to let in the freeway noise.
But by the time the O.J. Simpson case broke, five months later, Connelly had moved on.
When he turned on his TV and saw the Times reporter who'd taken his place in the crowd outside Simpson's house, his reaction was: "That could have been me, and I'm glad it isn't."
As for today, well, how could he not be glad he didn't stick around to meet the fate of Jack McEvoy -- who, as "The Scarecrow" begins, learns that he has two weeks to train a cheaper, younger replacement before being "involuntarily separated" from his job.
* * *
McEvoy's replacement is named Angela Cook. "She was what they called a mojo," Connelly writes, "a mobile journalist nimbly able to file from the field via any electronic means."
Cook is neither stupid nor a slacker, but she's "as green as can be." There's no telling how many stories she'll miss because she lacks both trustworthy sources and the experience to tell when the untrustworthy ones are lying.
Throw in a deranged villain whose use of the Web to track and target humans echoes the way online technology has been assaulting newspapers, and McEvoy's mojo nemesis finds herself dangerously over her head.
McEvoy was an easy character to write, Connelly says, because "I was writing about myself."
It's not that the two share biographies, he explains. McEvoy's back story is much darker than his. But when Connelly writes about a homicide detective such as Bosch, he's always having to stop and think: What would this guy do here? With "The Poet" and "The Scarecrow," by contrast, "I just wrote what I would do, what I would say, what I would think. And those are the two fastest books I've ever written."
"The Poet" took three months. "The Scarecrow" took six, but only because Connelly had to go back and update his fictional reporters' universe.
He'd given his first draft to a number of journalist friends to vet. One was Anderson, his old Sun-Sentinel colleague, an early adapter to online journalism who had moved on to Chicago only to see his Tribune Co. job eliminated after 27 years with the company.
"I sent him a note," Anderson says. It said roughly: "Great story, good read, but you can tell it's been a while since you've worked in a newsroom."
To take just one example: What modern reporter would sit through a police department news conference, then head back to the newsroom to make calls and file a story for the next day's edition?
No, no, no! She'd be filing for the Web while the news conference was still going on -- as Cook does in the reworked version of "The Scarecrow" -- and she'd have no time to check the self-serving police version.
It would be giving too much away to say precisely how the mojo-old guard conflict is resolved in "The Scarecrow." Thanks to Angela Cook, Jack McEvoy gets one last chance to rejoin the newspaper ranks, but you'll have to read the book to see if he seizes it.
As for McEvoy's creator, he's not looking back. His new novel is topping bestseller lists, and the critics still love him. He is "an immensely skilled entertainer," as The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley has written, "who has mastered the requirements and expectations of his genre but also from time to time rises above them."
But please don't expect him to solve the case of the serial killer stalking American newspapers.
"You know, I wrote a thriller," Michael Connelly says. "I don't think as a novelist I need to come up with solutions.
"If you hold up a little bit of a mirror, you've done your job."