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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Scarecrow, by Michael Connelly (hardcover, $27.99)

Michael Connelly is a master storyteller. No, he is a Ph.D. storyteller. His pacing and plotting skills are still excellent in this, his twentieth novel -- alas, a too-rare accomplishment for a series writer.

In The Scarecrow, Jack McEvoy (of The Poet) reunites with Rachel Walling (also of The Poet, but who also has made a guest appearance in Connelly's Harry Bosch series). It has been about a dozen years since they last saw each other. Their personal relationship blew up FBI agent Walling's career, thus bringing to an end their personal relationship. McEvoy, on the other hand, has enjoyed success as an author – of a book on The Poet – and is currently a Los Angeles Times crime reporter. Hmmm, Michael Connelly was a Los Angeles Times crime reporter, and he wrote a book called The Poet. We can assume that Connelly's interest in portraying the deterioration of a great metropolitan newspaper has a more than passing interest for him.

When the story begins, Jack has just been fired. He is one of the highest paid journalists at The Times, and so his departure will save the latest corporation to own The Times beaucoup bucks. Bye, bye, Jack. Wait, would he train his replacement? She is Angela Cook: young, fresh-faced, and cheap – in a corporate-expenditure-kind-of-way, of course. Jack rises above his basest instinct for revenge and agrees.

As he forages for a last great story to allow him to leave on a note of triumph, Jack is assigned the murder of a young woman. She has been bound, raped, and suffocated. Because of some of the unusual features of the murder, Jack begins to dig a little further into the story. Soon Angela, without Jack's permission, begins to poke around as well. Just as he is accepting, based on Angela's research, that the story involves a serial killer, Angela disappears.

This is where Connelly 's story zooms off. There isn't a lengthy set-up, but what there is of it is very well done. He establishes characters and plotlines quickly. He gets to the action and we meet the killer very early on, but Connelly sets the tension at just the right level to string his readers along. It is hard for the reader to juggle savoring each page and rapidly turning it to see what happens next.

Each of Connelly's stories stand alone in the telling, but he rewards faithful readers by dropping names and bits of storyline relating to his other books. Harry Bosch, unnamed but recognizable in Walling's description, contributes a philosophical musing that threads itself throughout the book. It doesn't matter if you haven't read The Poet – but why haven't you? – because Connelly tells you what you need to know.

Connelly brings Rachel Walling back into Jack McEvoy's life, and Connelly writes about this relationship with tenderness and care. Jack may have a sorry excuse for a life at the point the story begins, but his heart is still capable of beating rapidly for the right reasons. This is yet another example of how well Connelly delineates his characters; even though we could never know a Walling or a McEvoy, we know they could exist somewhere.

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