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Onyx reviews: The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly got his start in writing as a crime beat reporter, so he knows whereof he speaks in creating the character of Jack McEvoy, a reporter for the now-defunct Rocky Mountain Times whose greatest claim to fame is that he ended the reign of terror of the serial killer dubbed the Poet. After those events, and the best-selling book he wrote about the case, he landed a high-paying job with the LA Times. Unfortunately, when the newspaper started cutting  positions to maintain its dwindling budget, McEvoy's hefty salary outweighed his reputation. He is #99 out of 100 employees laid off in the current round.

His reputation gives him one advantage over the other dismissed employees: two weeks' notice. Most of his coworkers were escorted from the building, clutching their personal possessions in cardboard boxes.

His employer isn't doing this completely out of loyalty to McEvoy; rather, they want him to train his replacement, Angela Cook, an eager young cub who will probably be a fine reporter, but who lacks the street smarts and the connections to provide the checks and balances that define the relationship between the police department and the media. Jack worries about the stories she'll miss because of her inexperience. It's not his problem, though.

Two weeks is also enough time for one last story, a chance to go out in a blaze of glory. It's a kind of anticipatory schadenfreude. If the story is big enough, it will make him more attractive when he goes on the job hunt, but it will also be a way to make his soon-to-be-former employers look bad for dismissing him.

The case that comes across his desk doesn't look promising at first. A distraught and angry grandmother makes a crank call to Jack after he writes an article that merely parrots the information from a police report about a young black drug dealer accused of murdering a white woman. Her grandson is innocent, she maintains, and Jack feels just bad enough to dig deeper, though he figures the story will be about the downward spiral of a young man rather than turning up something exculpatory.

Angela Cook is a firecracker. She can file stories from the field using her mobile device, and undercuts Jack at every chance, using his stooped shoulders to climb the career ladder. However, her diligence turns up a second murder victim who died under identical circumstances. The second victim's husband is in prison for her death, so the fact that a serial killer seems to be at work sets two men free.

Once McEvoy realizes the scope of the story he's on, he gets in touch with Rachel Walling, the FBI agent who is  perpetually in the doghouse with her superiors, at least in part because of her romantic involvement with McEvoy. Her cavalier disregard for bureau regulations in leaping to his assistance puts her well on the way to joining McEvoy on the unemployment line.

McEvoy has much in common with Connelly's regular series protagonist, Harry Bosch—his demeanor, world view, and marital status. Walling is a little more enigmatic—stone cold as an agent and yet clearly smitten by McEvoy.

The serial killer's identity isn't a mystery to the reader. In fact, Wesley Carver is introduced before McEvoy enters the story, though the nature of his exploits takes a while longer to emerge. Connelly keeps readers up to date on the killer's whereabouts and nefarious thought processes through frequent interludes. As the threat detector at an underground data silo that stores confidential files for companies around the country, Carver has access to information that allows him to hand-pick his victims. When McEvoy starts getting close, the killer uses his connections to mess with the reporter's credit cards and bank accounts.

Though the serial killer case is reasonably interesting, and the interactions between McEvoy and Walling touching, the book's greatest strength is Connelly's insight into newspaper publishing. He speaks the language of the business, bandying around terms like leads, bullets, slugs, and story budgets. He understands column inches and the importance of appearing above the fold. He has also kept up to date with the changing face of the business, where stories often break on the web the night before they hit the newsstands.

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