The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly

The Scarecrow

by Michael Connelly

Published by Little, Brown & Company

448 pages, 2009






Kill Her Madly

Reviewed by Anthony Rainone


Los Angeles Times cop beat reporter Jack McEvoy becomes another victim of downsizing when the paper gives him his Reduction in Force notice -- aka “pink slip.” But that doesn’t take the charge out of McEvoy’s instincts for a good story, especially if it means he can go out with a bang and leave some egg on his bosses’ faces. And McEvoy has just the article in mind.

Sixteen-year-old Alonzo Winslow stands accused of a trunk murder -- killing 23-year-old stripper Denise Babbit and stuffing her body into the trunk of her car. LAPD detectives claim that Winslow confessed to the killing, and the authorities are set to charge him as an adult. Winslow’s mother, though, calls McEvoy and challenges him to do the right thing -- namely, clear her gang-banger son of a murder he didn’t commit. Although McEvoy first envisioned the article as a lengthy exposé on how a young man is turned into a killer, he is subsequently convinced of Winslow’s innocence.

McEvoy quickly runs into two major obstacles, however. First off, Angela Cook, his younger and beautiful replacement on the cop-shop beat, convinces the assistant city editor to let her co-write the article and grab a piece of the byline. Secondly, there’s the real killer of Babbit -- “The Scarecrow,” who becomes aware of McEvoy and Cook’s interest in the murder. The Scarecrow makes it his priority to stop McEvoy and Cook before they dig too deep and discover his sordid history.

Author Michael Connelly regularly reminds us that no matter how much the world we live in changes, some things are constant -- things such as evil men stalking the earth. In The Scarecrow, he’s created an adversary for McEvoy that rivals that protagonist’s past nemesis, The Poet.

Angela Cook might be a green reporter, but she unknowingly stumbles upon the key to the Babbit case: the fact that a serial killer has been operating under the radar of law enforcement. She gives McEvoy print-outs of stories about other trunk murders that have taken place across the country, and thereby helps the soon-to-be laid-off journalist spot a direct connection to a killing in Las Vegas. Ace that he is, McEvoy heads out to Sin City to investigate.

His pursuit puts him on Highway 50 in Nevada, called the Loneliest Road in America because of the barren landscape through which it passes. On his way to interview a man convicted of killing his ex-wife -- another possible Scarecrow victim -- McEvoy discovers that he has been mysteriously subjected to an electronic and economic wipe-out. His cell phone doesn’t work, nor do his credit cards, and someone has emptied out his bank account. McEvoy calls the one person he can trust to help him: his ex-lover and current FBI agent Rachel Walling. The two were romantically linked years ago during the Poet case, but McEvoy hadn’t seen Walling in a decade -- not since their personal involvement nearly ended her law-enforcement career. Walling hears enough from McEvoy to make her fly out to Vegas -- a move that ultimately saves his life. When Walling tells McEvoy that she believes he is being tracked and hunted by Denise Babbit’s real killer, the seriousness of McEvoy’s investigation, and the tone of the novel, gets pushed into the red zone. Walling is a recurring character in many of Connelly’s Bosch books, and a fan favorite. It isn’t long before she and the Times newsie pick up on their romance where it had stalled all those years ago, even though it means she’ll face the same potential career hazards she did when she first heated the sheets with the hard-charging McEvoy.

This book alternates between first- and third-person narration, the former coming from McEvoy and the third-person viewpoint focusing on The Scarecrow. Connelly gives his serial slayer a particular predilection, a fetish that finds solace in an online community of men with similar perverted tastes. The Scarecrow’s vitriol feeds itself on both a recollection of images from his difficult upbringing and recurring memory threads of music by The Doors. That band’s 1971 song “The Changeling” becomes his touchstone, so to speak. He’s one significantly twisted hombre. Killers have to have a day job usually, and The Scarecrow has his: he’s a computer whiz at a “farm,” a complex that provides security for a large number of servers owned mainly by private companies. The joy of Connelly’s newest novel is watching Jack McEvoy and Rachel Walling track down their quarry’s identity. The dread comes from knowing that The Scarecrow is gunning for them and has them outwitted at almost every turn.

In the end, it’s not the killer’s technological prowess that matters so much as it is the goodness that McEvoy and Willing represent, and their ability to triumph over his evil. In Scarecrow, the author shows that cops aren’t the only ones who deal with “a darkness more than night.” Anybody who crosses that unlit path, people like McEvoy, face the same risks. For this reviewer’s taste, if it isn’t Connelly’s usual protagonist, Harry Bosch, in the trenches against the bad guys, then Jack McEvoy fills in admirably. The Scarecrow is a tense, taut thriller that never exhausts itself of surprises for the reader. I expected nothing less from this master storyteller.

* * *

I recently had the opportunity to ask Michael Connelly some questions about his novel. Below is our exchange.

Anthony Rainone: As a former journalist, these must be disturbing times for you. Do your own feelings about the downward trend in newspaper publishing come out in Jack McEvoy’s sentiments?

Michael Connelly: Yes, exactly. I have been out of the journalism business for 14 years but it’s still hard to sit back and watch the implosion of the business. It’s really a shame. I know society moves on to hopefully bigger and better things, but I can’t help but think that this will total out to a net loss. I get a lot of my news from the Internet. I have no complaint there. But a newspaper is like a community tent pole. You can’t remove it without causing some damage.

FBI special agent Rachel Walling hooks up again with Jack McEvoy in this novel. Previously, she was romantically involved with McEvoy in The Poet (1996), but later had an affair with another of your creations, LAPD Detective Harry Bosch, in Echo Park (2006). From Walling’s perspective, what makes McEvoy a more appealing figure than Bosch? What makes McEvoy the man for Walling, and not my boy Harry?

You got me there. You might be seeing the author at work behind the story. I know that for the time being I can’t give Harry contentment. If I do, the series is over. So I need to take Rachel away from him. So that decision was more based on that need than a choice between Harry and Jack. But now that you mention it and I think about it, I think Jack probably is the easier choice for Rachel. In one of the books Rachel says to Harry that he is too unpredictable, that he crosses too many lines and that makes a relationship with him too risky. I think that was an accurate assessment.

You seemed to enjoy writing about cyberspace and computer hardware in The Scarecrow. You also used high-tech as a backdrop in one of your previous novels, Chasing the Dime (2002). Do you have a techno-thriller someone on a back burner?

I think these should count as my techno-thrillers. I am fascinated by the simple construct that for every great technologic advance that we make, there are always going to be those who figure out how to use it against us. The Internet changed the world for the better, but look at how many people are hiding in the dark cracks of it. Exploring that is hugely fulfilling to me. 

Was it fun to do the research for this new book? What particular things did you do? Did you take a tour of a server farm?

I mostly researched this book via the Internet. I hired a researcher that could find and point me to the things I needed. I took many tours of server farms -- from Australia to Iowa, but all of them were online. It’s all there for the finding. I told my researcher to find me a community built around what for many would be considered an aberrant sexual fetish. He came up with abasiophilia, and I was off and running there. Whatever I needed I could find without leaving my computer. The only real physical or on-location research I ended up doing was in Mesa, Arizona, and in the desert north of Las Vegas, off the highway known as the Loneliest Road in America. 

Serial killer novels are plentiful in fiction these days. But Scarecrow is so fresh in its approach to the subject. What challenges do you look for when you’re writing these types of books? How do you keep it fresh for yourself?

I’m not sure. I am aware of what you are saying, that they are plentiful, and it is always so quick for a misinformed critic to say, “I am so tired of serial-killer books” or “Do we really need another serial-killer book?” This sort of complaint evaporates as soon as the next really good serial-killer book comes along. So the lesson there is that you need to keep it fresh and use the serial-killer model -- high stakes catch him before he strikes again -- as a form to explore something else. With Scarecrow, I wanted to write a story about the newspaper business. That it turned into a serial-killer book came after that choice, so maybe that helped me a bit. I happen to love the momentum you get when you write a book like this. The investigation is always moving and so is the writing experience. And of course I think that translates to the reading experience as well.

How difficult was it for you to go back and forth between McEvoy and The Scarecrow? In other words, how did you get one voice out of your head before writing the other? An did you find it personally disturbing to be inside The Scarecrow's mind?

It wasn’t hard, because McEvoy is very close to me. He is easily the most autobiographical character I have ever written about. So it was very easy to slip into his skin. With The Scarecrow, the chapters are short and therefore I didn’t spend much time “with'” him. The truth is, however, writing the bad guys is always easier, because they don’t have the same boundaries and they are automatically interesting to the reader because they are so different. 

We never really learn for sure why The Scarecrow became such a diabolical man. Do you believe his dark essence was strictly because of his environment growing up, or do you perhaps believe that his evil was derived from those dark forces that FBI agent Terry McCaleb talked about in A Darkness More Than Night (2001)?

I think it’s a bit of both. It’s kind of like athletic talent. Some people are born with it, and through coaching and practice they get better and learn how to use it to the fullest. I think the same can be said about inherent evil. Some people have the gene, and through environment and upbringing, the right combination of nurturing and exterior influences bring it forth. One of the things I was trying explore in this book was the aspect of community that can be found on the Internet. This can be one of those influences, I think. You take someone with a secret and sick desire, and whereas 25 years ago they might think they were alone in the world, they can now find community and acceptance by typing a few words into a search engine. Does community and acceptance then lead to acting out of those desires? That’s the question the book asks. There is no definitive answer. I know people in law enforcement who say it does.

At one point in Scarecrow, Walling and McEvoy sound like they’re seriously considering leaving their respective careers in favor of private investigation. So let me ask: What ideas for future books are actually percolating in your mind? Will McEvoy stay in journalism? Will he maybe team up with Mickey Haller (Bosch’s half-brother from The Lincoln Lawyer and The Brass Verdict)? Will we be seeing more of Rachel Walling and Jack McEvoy as a team?

For now, Jack is on the back burner. I have a Bosch book coming in October [9 Dragons] and am writing another Bosch book to follow. Jack could come back after that. I am waiting to be inspired. I think its clear from the end of [The Scarecrow] that Jack is set to continue as a journalist for the Velvet Coffin Web site [which was started by an ex-journalist and covers doings at the L.A. Times]. So I have that seed firmly planted -- I even own the real Web site -- and I can go back to that when I want.

How important was it to find the right music for The Scarecrow? Music is essential in your books. Bosch will be linked to jazz forever, of course. What about The Doors rang true for the connection to The Scarecrow?

Yes, music is important -- probably more so in the writing process than the reading process. I give my characters music, sometimes even a specific theme song, and play it a lot while writing the book. It helps me find the right groove for writing the character. I’ve always loved The Doors and the song “The Changeling” seemed to speak well to the character of The Scarecrow. I also was dealing with the idea of the contemporary journalist being called a “mojo,” as in mobile journalist, and of course you have Mr. Mojo Risin’ in a Doors song about seemingly dark things happening in L.A. So for a lot of disparate reasons it all seemed to fit, and I chose music from The Doors. It was a pretty expensive decision because I had to pay to quote the lyrics. | August 2009


Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine, a contributor to The Rap Sheet, and a co-editor of the crime poetry chapbook series, The Lineup. His short story “Fall to Pieces” appears in the Summer 2009 issue of Spinetingler Magazine.