Thursday, June 11, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: Michael Connelly's The Scarecrow

Many years ago when I was a young bachelor I brought home to my apartment a young girl I met in a bar.

While I was preparing a couple of drinks for us she looked over the books in my library.

“You have a lot of books on death,” she said in a questioning tone, noting the numerous titles of books on crime history, true crime and crime fiction, as well those on espionage, terrorism and military history.

Well, I tried to explain, I have books on a wide variety of subjects, as well as classic literature, but as a student of crime and a crime writer, I of course own a good number of books on crime.

She nodded and sipped her drink, but she soon made her excuses and left my apartment. I finished my drink and had a good laugh.

Michael Connelly’s fictional character Jack McEvoy would have understood. According to Connelly, McEvoy specializes in death.

McEvoy is the Rocky Mountain News crime reporter we met in Connelly’s earlier crime thriller, The Poet, in which he investigated the suicide of his twin brother, a homicide detective. Teaming up with an FBI Special Agent he later becomes romantically involved with, McEvoy hunts a serial killer that leaves poetry and phrases from Edgar Allen Poe at his victim’s crime scenes.

In what his publishers describe as a “continuation,” rather than a sequel, McEvoy is back on the hunt, investigating another serial killer in The Scarecrow (Little, Brown and Company).

Having achieved some fame and written a bestselling true crime book on the Poet serial killer, McEvoy has moved up from the Rocky Mountain News to a coveted position on The Los Angeles Times.

Unfortunately, as a highly-paid crime reporter, he is on the list of laid off staff as the newspaper downsizes. He is allowed to remain on for two weeks, providing he trains his replacement. His replacement is a young woman fresh out of journalism school, but she is much more technology-savvy than McEvoy - and she is paid far less than McEvoy.

Hoping to leave the newspaper with a big story, McEvoy investigates the case of an exotic dancer found dead in a car trunk. The police have arrested a 16-year-old gangbanger, but McEvoy connects the murder of the dancer to other murders committed elsewhere.

The killer this time is less artistic than the Poet. The “Scarecrow,” so called because he is hired to prevent intrusions to law firm and corporate computer files, is a crazed computer genius. Being an expert on system intrusions, he is able to both track McEvoy’s actions and thwart his investigation via system hacking.

McEvoy calls in FBI Special Agent Rachel Walling, his partner and girlfriend from The Poet, to assist him in what he believes will be the biggest story he’s covered since the Poet. Like the Poet story, McEvoy becomes part of the story rather than just covering it. The hunter becomes the hunted and McEvoy realizes that he has is being targeted by the Scarecrow.

The story’s backdrop features both the shrinking world of daily newspapers and the growing world of digital technology. Connelly, a former crime reporter for The Los Angeles Times, knows the world of newspapers well and he laments the current state of the business.

In The Scarecrow McEvoy notes that since most of the news has been posted on the Internet, the newspaper might as well be called The Daily Afterthought.

“At one time the newsroom was the best place in the world to work,” McEvoy explains in the novel. “A bustling place of camaraderie, competition, gossip, cynical wit and humor, it was at the crossroads of ideas and debate. It produced stories and pages that were vibrant and intelligent, that set the agenda for what was discussed and considered important in a city as diverse as Los Angeles. Now thousands of pages of editorial content were being cut each year and soon the paper would be like the newsroom, an intellectual ghost town.”

Connelly is less knowledgeable about computers and technology, but like a good reporter, he has researched this area and he presents a chilling account of the mayhem a person with extraordinary computer skills can cause.

While some fear the government’s intrusion into our lives with security cameras and electronic surveillance (all in the cause of preventing crime and acts of terrorism), I tend to be more wary of the hacker who wreaks havoc on our lives for reasons of larceny or a perverse sense of humor.

Connelly’s hacker-killer manipulates McEvoy by intercepting his e-mails, forging other e-mails from him and by canceling his cell phone service and credit cards. By hacking into various systems the killer learns all about McEvoy.

Connelly’s latest novel is fast-paced, suspenseful and interesting. If you’re interested in crime, you will enjoy this crime thriller.

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