Warner, 1996, 501 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60261-2
Michael Connelly has done it again. At a time where I’m quite willing to throw the towel on Yet Another Serial Killer Mystery, he manages to produce a gripping mystery novel about… a serial killer.
It doesn’t start out that way, of course. All that narrator/protagonist Jack McEvoy knows is that his brother Sean is dead. Jack is a journalist on the crime beat. Sean was a homicide detective before killing himself with his service revolver. But there is something strange about the death, a suicide note quoting Edgar Allan Poe. Did Sean truly pull the trigger on himself?
Digging deeper, Jack uncovers another suicide with troubling similarities to his brother’s case, a second homicide detective, miles away, killing himself after leaving a note quoting Poe. What is the link? Has Jack discovered a story he can’t handle? The Poet goes on from there, as it becomes more and more obvious that someone, out there, is hunting the hunters.
Connelly’s reputation for slick crime fiction needs no further bolstering, but works like The Poet are what makes him so great. Serial Killers are, by now, a cliché of crime fiction. It takes some imagination to wring a twist or two out of the concept. In this case, the identity of the victims is a twist; it’s not giving away much that the identity of the killer(s?) is another. Some passages, details and situations show Connelly at his most clever self.
Fortunately, this isn’t a contemptuous sort of cleverness. The Poet doesn’t take a long time to earn the interest of its readers with its grieving first-person narration, uncluttered close and steady narrative thrust. The novel keeps switching gears to make things interesting: Jack’s solo investigation is soon co-opted by larger forces and he’s swept along with the rest of them in a very different story.
“The rest of them” is an interesting bunch of characters, most well-defined according to their role in the plot, and as competent as they can be. Nearly all major characters have a pleasing depth to them, and even the tale’s villains prove to be a lot more interesting than usual. As a narrator, Jack has seen so much of the dark side that he’s the next best thing to a hard-boiled detective protagonist. He starts both first and last chapter with the reminder that “Death is my beat” and often, you get a feeling that death has beaten Jack McEvoy at his own game. One can only speculate as to the similitudes between McEvoy and Connelly, himself a crime reporter before turning to the crime-fiction trade.
As may be expected from the work of an ex-journalist, the wealth of procedural details to be found in Connelly’s book is mesmerizing. We get the feeling of an insider’s view of FBI profiling procedures as Jack is reluctantly made a member of an unusual investigation. As clues are discovered, planted or disproved, the investigation becomes more and more twisted. Connelly plays the mystery fiction game like a grandmaster; even as he honestly manipulates his reader in thinking something, he surprises them with a counter-twist. In some ways, this is a mystery novel for those who are jaded of mysteries; his narrative is stuffed with double and triple twists in an effort to surprise even those who think they can figure it all out.
This elaborate game of subterfuge between author and reader can take its toll, though: The ending is a bit drawn out, and feels a little artificial in how the twists are finally revealed. After so many procedural details, it’s also surprising to see how little of the villain’s motivation is revealed. There is also a palpable lessening of tension as the precise timing and identity of the rescuing cavalry is never in doubt. But that’s small potatoes of complaints after such an exhilarating book. Clearly, this novel deserves all the acclaim it can get.
The Poet is a complete entertainment package. It works on all levels, from characterization to plotting to the way the words are strung together. While it falters when comes the moment to present a conclusion, it’s still good enough to uphold Connelly’s reputation as one of today’s best crime novelist. Whether you’re contemplating beach reading or fireside reading, don’t miss it.