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BOOK REVIEW

Connelly's killer newspaper caper

By Chuck Leddy
Globe Correspondent / May 23, 2009
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Aside from his always-suspenseful, tautly written tales of good guy versus bad guy, bestselling thriller author Michael Connelly ("The Lincoln Lawyer," "The Brass Verdict") does something more topical in his 21st book, "The Scarecrow." The former journalist shows us the fictional collision between the supposedly dying world of print newspapers and the increasingly dominant land of digital technology.

Connelly's hero is veteran Los Angeles Times police reporter Jack McEvoy, who as the book opens, has been laid off during the most recent round of cost cutting. With readers and ad revenue migrating toward online news sources, McEvoy feels like a dinosaur. He's given two weeks to train his replacement, a recent journalism school graduate named Angela Cook who's happy to work for low pay. This being a thriller, and a terrific one at that, McEvoy decides to go out with a bang: He'll do one last murder story that will make the newspaper's ownership regret their decision.

McEvoy investigates a murder case involving a dead woman stuffed in a trunk. The accused killer is Alonzo Winslow, a 16-year-old gang member. While McEvoy says he's pursuing the story to prove Winslow's innocence, his motives are far murkier. McEvoy's cynical photographer Sonny Lester sees another reason: "You're going to write a story about how a sixteen-year-old kid becomes a stone-cold killer. . . . Tellin' how society lets that kind of thing happen? That's Pulitzer territory, bro." Connelly's portrait of a newspaper on the ropes, trying to maintain quality reporting while jobs disappear, is among the many charms of this absorbing thriller.

Connelly's plot, an expertly constructed vehicle, quickens when McEvoy discovers that the alleged Winslow murder is shockingly similar to an earlier murder in Las Vegas. In both murders, the killer's modus operandi was the same and, Connelly discovers, a third party was set up perfectly in both cases to take the fall. "Immediately I was hit with the profound sense that these women had not been selected randomly by their killer. They had been chosen. They fit some kind of mold that made them targets."

Connelly's narrative switches back and forth between McEvoy's investigation and the killer's ongoing efforts to remain undetected. This intricate, interweaving story structure allows Connelly to show readers what McEvoy is doing, while also taking us inside the villain's efforts at countering the hero. Readers are given a deeply satisfying sense of omniscience, yet Connelly never stops doling out the suspense as action leads to counteraction.

Connelly's villain is Wesley Carver, a warped computer genius and MIT graduate who's the brains behind booming Western Data Consultants. WDC is a murky Arizona company that stores and protects data for law firms, and Carver, it turns out, is using his access to this sensitive data to identify and target his victims. Connelly expertly explains how WDC operates and describes the sophistication of its security system.

As McEvoy and Carver move toward their ultimate clash, the reporter finds an ally in an old flame, Rachel Walling, an FBI agent. Walling is an expert profiler who aids McEvoy in understanding the perverse mentality of the killer, helping him follow the trail of clues to Carver. Connelly's thriller is an addictive read that, once it grabs you in those first few pages, won't let go of you. While Connelly is not a literary writer, there are no flights of lyrical fancy here or profound, existential truths, what he provides is high-grade entertainment. If you're looking for a satisfying summer read, "The Scarecrow" should fit the bill.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

THE SCARECROW By Michael Connelly

Little, Brown, 419 pp., $27.99

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