Little Brown, 2009, 419 pages, C$30.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-316-16630-0
For series readers, some books are an investment, while others feel like payoffs. While The Scarecrow will be perfectly intelligible and interesting to readers coming in cold to Michael Connelly’s crime thrillers, there’s no doubt that those who are familiar with the Connollyverse are going to get the most out of it. Starting by the fact that it’s a thematic sequel of sort to the author’s most successful book, The Poet.
It’s true that there has already been a direct sequel to The Poet: The Narrows, after all, featured Harry Bosch disposing of the serial killer known as “The Poet”, while Jack McEvoy had small roles in other Connelly novels, most notably in A Darkness More Than Night. But this is McEvoy’s first return as a narrator, and the links between The Scarecrow and McEvoy’s previous adventure run deep.
The Scarecrow certainly opens on some of the most depressing passages ever featured in a Connelly novel so far: As the novel begins, McEvoy has been fired. Newspapers everywhere are downsizing (the novel even includes a timely reference to the Denver Rocky Mountain News, which went web-only in early 2009), and veterans like McEvoy are too costly to keep in an era of corporate efficiency and dirt-cheap bloggers. Given two wholly unrealistic weeks to set his affairs in order and train his replacement, McEvoy is pushed to investigate a murder case where the accused has been coerced in an unconvincing confession. But in doing so, he alerts the real murderer, and this “Scarecrow” is a piece of work: an experienced serial killer with near-magical hacking skills, this antagonist takes no chances in dealing with McEvoy. Events unfold at a surprisingly fast pace from that moment: Only the timely appearance of FBI agent Rachel Walling saves McEvoy’s day, and their rekindled relationship isn’t much of a comfort when Walling’s career is once again on the line.
As a reunion of familiar characters, The Scarecrow does quite a few things very well indeed. Harry Bosch is alluded to along the way, but his absence as the heavyweight protagonist of Connelly’s fiction frees Rachel Walling to become an interesting character once more. McEvoy’s narration is a welcome return to a journalist’s perspective on the usual sordid business that takes place in a Connelly novel: his wealth of experience as a reporter gives a neat twist to the procedural details of the tale (the book’s most telling detail being McEvoy’s recommendation to his successor to move a policeman’s quote closer to the top of the article, so that it will survive editing and create goodwill from the policeman) and echoes The Poet: the motto “Death is my beat” makes a return appearance, even as McEvoy seems at the end of his rope as a journalist.
Otherwise, The Scarecrow hops between California and Nevada, goes from a newsroom to hotels to a data center, features some decent action scenes for McEvoy and doesn’t skimp on the denouement. Connelly’s prose is as crisp as ever, and if the result can often feel a bit familiar (especially toward the end), it’s a solid piece of summer reading with most of the qualities of the author’s fiction and few particular flaws. The novel’s cutting-edge references to the end of the newspaper era may prove to be just a bit too timely to act as an entirely escapist piece of fiction, but fans of Connelly’s output so far will be pleased to see familiar characters on-stage once more, while newer readers will come to understand what all the fuss around Connelly’s fiction is about.