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review 2020-01-03 23:14
Talking Truth to Power
The Poet (Jack McEvoy #1) - Michael Connelly

“Death is my beat…” is the kind of dramatic opening at which Michael Connelly excels and it’s a fitting introduction to the main character of this 1996 novel, ‘Rocky Mountain News’ reporter, Jack McEvoy. I should perhaps stress that this is NOT a Harry Bosch detective story. Notwithstanding my intention to run down the lengthy Bosch series of novels, my learned friend and aficionado in such matters advised there was value in this (not so short) diversion that would see seeds sown, to be reaped later. Time will tell. However, the sure-footedness of the author’s writing style certainly made this standalone companion to my literary pilgrimage, worth paying homage to. Indeed, there are parallels between the detective and the journalist and just as Harry Bosch has previously found himself enmeshed in the FBI, so in this novel, it is the turn of Jack McEvoy to work alongside the Feds, in an investigation spanning a number of states.


The catalyst had been the death of Jack’s twin brother. The lead investigator on a horrific murder case, Detective Sean McEvoy had allegedly committed suicide, overwhelmed by the attendant emotional trauma. The evidence had been weighed quickly, to turn an embarrassing page for the local police department, only Jack wasn’t buying it. What if, instead of assuming suicide, it was assumed that Sean McEvoy was the victim of a homicide? Could the evidence support such a radically different interpretation? The police aren’t the only agency with investigative resources and by pulling hard on the loose threads, Jack begins to unravel a whole world of pain.


Not only is the dynamic flow of the plot reminiscent of the Bosch novels, in Jack McEvoy, the author has also embedded some very familiar traits. Intelligent, but stubborn, rebellious, but loyal, determined, but at times naive, there is something very satisfying about the maverick character cocking a snook at authority and in so doing establishing his integrity. Of course, as a former crime reporter for the LA Times, Michael Connelly is well-placed to lift the lid a little on the role of the investigative journalist and the inherent tensions between the guardianship of the public’s ‘right to know’ and those clandestine operatives tasked with keeping the public safe from harm, on a ‘need to know’ basis. With trust on both sides in short supply, the author also has fun with it, in the inevitable romantic incursion across boundaries. Though this lighter plotline perhaps eases the discomfort, which flows from the disturbing portrait of a clinical serial killer.


All-in-all a very satisfying, but challenging read and the sequel (‘The Narrows’) comes in at number ten in the Harry Bosch ‘hit parade’. In fact, last week the third book in the ‘Jack McEvoy series’ has been announced (‘Fair Warning’ due out in May 2020). This intertwining of characters and series is turning my simple trek through an interesting body of work into something of an odyssey, but the journey is made all the more interesting for it. Still, I am also indebted to my Twitter buddy @JoeBanksWrites who is up ahead on the reading list climb, like my very own literary sherpa! Next stop for me, Book 5, “Trunk Music” (1997). See you at the top!

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review 2011-02-09 00:00
The Scarecrow (Jack McEvoy, #2) - Michael Connelly Comment: I enjoy Michael Connelly's books, and this is no exception to that rule. I've read each and everyone of the Harry Bosch series novels, and of course, Mickey Haller, and Jack McEvoy as well. Synopsis: Jack McEvoy, ace newspaper reporter, and Rachel Walling, FBI Special Agent and some time consort of Harry Bosch, are the driving forces on the side of good in this sterling read. Connelly created a special antagonist in an earlier novel, The Poet. Three issues weave their ways through the novel. The main plot centers on the murders committed by someone who comes to be known as the Scarecrow Wesley Carver. He has a special way of killing, of course, but the police have not yet connected the dots; they have settled for the expedient solution. Computers figure heavily into the crimes as they provide a means of identifying potential victims. The problem is much more than a simple worm embedded into someone's computer, but it a very real concern both within the plot and in reality. A major plot device revolves around the newspaper business and the difficulties it is encountering even in real life. The face of this decline is Jack McEvoy who had won a Pulitzer for his reporting on The Poet. Now, he is number 99 in a planned reduction in force of 100 employees of the Los Angeles Times. Ironically, the fictional Rocky Mountain News that Jack worked for in The Poet has shut down in real life after 150 years.Jack has only 2 weeks before he is RIFFED when he receives a telephone call from the mother of a juvenile gang banger who is supposed to have confessed to killing a young woman. She says he is innocent. Jack does not believe her, but he senses the possibility of a very nice "going-away" story, one that will say to the bosses, "You made a big mistake letting me go." A very small bit of investigation convinces Jack that the juvenile, while clearly a criminal, is innocent of this charge. His further investigation brings him back in touch with Rachel, his former lover, whom the FBI had relegated to a backwater office. She has just rehabilitated herself and is now back in the mainstream of the agency. However, her participation with Jack creates new problems, resulting in her suspension and resignation.Will Jack save his job? Will Rachel save hers? Will the Scarecrow be caught? It takes only two pages to learn that Wesley Carver is the metaphorical scarecrow who minds the rows of "crops," banks of servers on a computer farm. Normally, this would be the good guy who ensures that data remain safe, but we learn right away that he crushes and destroys anyone who attempts to breech his security net. Is he the Scarecrow of the title or just a symbol? The final answer to that question is not delivered until near the end. Our journey to these revelations makes for a book that simply begs to be read and enjoyed as quickly as possible.
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review 2010-06-12 00:00
The Scarecrow (Jack McEvoy, #2) - Michael Connelly I have tried to read several Michael Connelly books and they just don't rock my boat. I find Jack McEvoy to be blowhardish and overly dramatic so I will probably just pass on this series and decide Connelly's writing just isn't my cup of tea!
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review 2009-05-25 00:00
The Scarecrow (Jack McEvoy, #2) - Michae... The Scarecrow (Jack McEvoy, #2) - Michael Connelly I didn't much like this. It eked out 2 stars 'cause there were moments--a good 100-page stretch in the middle--where I remained engaged, but it may squeak into "ok" territory simply out of nostalgia, a great appreciation for The Poet.

Since we've been debating/discussing genre on Eric W's group thread about fiction, I figured I might toss out a few reasons why I felt disappointed, and where I felt satisfied, to tease out something about what I think I'm getting when I pick up a mystery.

Proposition 1: Mysteries are about the little details that pieced properly together, or expertly excluded as irrelevant, lead to a coherent whole. I recall an old Connelly, Trunk Music I think, which had some throwaway details about the use of hemorrhoid cream to reduce swelling in the bags underneath models' eyes--and how this impact on tissue had some bearing on the plot. Where Connelly works is in the patient accrual of detail--my friend jo is reading procedurals, so I'm curious what she'd say, but I get a meta-narrative kick out of the whole thing. Reading mysteries is like untangling how stories work: the wiring exposed, the pipes connected or set off in a trash pile, and you get to the end and flip the switch, and the lightbulb goes off.

On the other hand, what I loved so much about The Poet was that all that patient accrual of detail took you in entirely the wrong direction. Without spoiling that fun, I'll suggest Proposition 2: Mysteries are about misdirection, the legerdemain that makes you think the details will piece together properly but ultimately confounds you, shows at tale's end that other pieces really mattered, and those you focused on were so much finger-waggling and scarf-waving. I tend to love Prop 1 and Prop 2 in intense dialectic; Scarecrow seemed lackluster in terms of detail, and while protagonist McEvoy gets thrown off by a red herring, we're getting the full picture in other chapters. In fact, it felt somewhat like reading a blueprint; if I like that in many mysteries I can figure out the wiring, it's absolutely no fun when the wiring is shown to me in such a heavy-handed dunderheaded fashion.

Proposition 3: Mysteries flirt with resonant traumas, anxieties, fears--personal and cultural. The stately bonhomie of the small town is peeled back to reveal corruption, lust, sin; the city's government is really conspiring against its citizens; children are at risk; terrorists circle 'round the homestead; death lurks. Etc. Connelly here pulls out a tired old foolish cultural demon (the serial killer), which seemed worn out 10 years ago, but he doesn't just play the old tune, he uses shorthand to hum a few bars, giving us a (good gravy) flashback to childhood trauma which is meant I guess to fulfill certain conventions about our understanding of that demon. He also tosses out the big scary internet (you can lose your identity! fiends and fetishists commune online!) and the death of newspapers. More on that last bit in a second, but re the others: go back to Prop 1--ideally, if you're going to trot out a cultural fear, you ground it in the kind of mundane details which convey such a rich sense of the world where readers live, to give 'em the heebie-jeebies. (Hey... Prop 3b: mysteries are actually horror stories, the uncanny sense that our worlds are dank and horrid behind the veil of everyday life.) Scarecrow's scary demons seem like shadowpuppets, banging on the wall and jumping around. More like an episode of Dateline than a truly fear-inducing thrill-ride.

Proposition 4: the particular plot--and all those details--are far less important than the exposure of systems and institutions, and how they shape (and misshape) our lives. This is where sociology, or a whiff of the old existential, can emerge as so central to the genre. For instance, what journalists and cops do is they see not just criminals, but the systems which produce crime, which reward and cover up illicit behavior--ostensibly, they see past the mere case being solved (or left ambiguously open) to deep-rooted portraits of reality, and how we live. Connelly's journalist, Jack McEvoy, seems to know things about the realities of LA, and of the LA Times. But what he knows seems surface-level to us--McEvoy confidently engages with drug dealers in Watts, but what he knows could have been learned on any episode of Law and Order: boilerplate pop sociology. After the riches of The Wire, or Lehane, Price, Pelecanos--or reach back to Himes, Hammett, MacDonald--bah. You can get away without 4 if you've got 1, or 2, I guess, but ... Connelly was really bugging the shit out of me. McEvoy's ostensible intelligence and ability seemed mostly an implicit assumption, based on the archetype, rather than any explicit illustration of his skills.

This is particularly, egregiously annoying when it comes to the death of newspapers, something about which a vet reporter like Connelly would you'd guess know quite a bit. But McEvoy simply mutters about corporate thinking, the new mojo (mobile journalist) and all their gadgets, the generally empty premise of the blogger... but never shows any worth to the old-school journalism he waxes nostalgic about. McEvoy can ask a hard question at a police press conference, but all he seems to think about is how to shape a story, as if the story is nothing but Proposition 1--which is unsettling when the hard questions he asks are ostensibly tied to Proposition 4. Connelly tempts you with social milieu and authenticity, but delivers a kind of freezedried tv dinner of such context.

I could imagine a few other Propositions--re the detective/s, re the villain/s, re tension and suspense. And, lord, with the best of 'em, you gotta talk language--hardboiled patter, the Leonardian deployment of the gerund, Chandler's thick-on-the-ground metaphors, the lush descriptions of Price, and so on.

I bet I could also take Propositions 1, 2, 3, and 4 and deploy them in most any genre, against any fiction... so maybe I'm not saying anything particular about mysteries per se. What novel isn't teasing us with 1 and/or 2? What litfic worth its salt doesn't deploy 3, and aim for 4?
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