Michael Connelly’s new book, The Scarecrow, hits bookstores this month, having garnered pre-release acclaim from every quarter. It is Connelly’s first novel to feature reporter Jack McEvoy since the runaway bestseller The Poet in 1996. Of all of the characters in Connelly books over the years, McEvoy has the trajectory that most closely resembles Connelly’s own: reporter for a small-town newspaper, a move to the Los Angeles Times, a successful book deal, fame and fortune; analogous events, albeit in a slightly different order.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Connelly via a crackly Tokyo-to-Florida cell phone connection. In addition to having read most of his books over the years, I did some research and learned that Connelly once lived in Raymond Chandler’s old apartment, a factoid I thought worth pursuing.
“Ah, you must have visited Wikipedia,” Connelly begins, with a knowing chuckle. “As so often happens with the Internet, they got the germ of the story right, but they missed out on the details.” Connelly says he was inspired to start writing mysteries after seeing Robert Altman’s film The Long Goodbye, in which Elliott Gould stars as the Chandler detective Philip Marlowe. “When I moved to L.A., I thought it would be cool to live in the apartment where Marlowe/Gould had lived in the movie,” he says. The apartment wasn’t available at the time, but years later it became vacant and Connelly moved in. “On the plus side, it had a great view overlooking L.A., and I could walk to the Hollywood Bowl to see the Rolling Stones. On, the minus side, it wasn’t air-conditioned, and it always smelled a bit like a gas leak,” Connelly recalls.
Connelly’s character, Jack McEvoy, lives in a Craftsman home south of Sunset, and does his writing from the pressroom of the Los Angeles Times. This is a room with which Connelly is intimately familiar from his years as a crime reporter, and one of his aims in writing The Scarecrow was to focus on the sad decline of newspapers like the Times. The real-life closing in February of the Rocky Mountain News, the site of McEvoy’s previous posting, forced the recall of The Scarecrow manuscript so Connelly could make last-minute changes to the book. As more newspapers around the country shut down, Connelly says, “I think what is lost is a community center, a place of news and ideas and debate. It will be splintered among websites and blogs. Perhaps more important is the loss of a watchdog. Who will keep an eye on the small stuff? Who will uncover the small corruptions that lead to the big ones? Will the bloggers do it? Will websites do it? I’m not sure.”
As The Scarecrow opens, McEvoy’s career is in flux: thanks to the double whammy of his large paycheck and the L.A. Times’ plummeting fortunes, he is about to be given the heave-ho. Asked to stay on for a brief period to train his replacement, Mc-Evoy faces a conundrum: on the one hand, he would love to leave his boss twisting in the wind, but he is working on an article that might well garner him the Pulitzer Prize, and he’d really like to stick around long enough to see it in print. His story focuses on Alonzo Winslow, a 16-year-old journeyman felon charged with rape and murder. It takes McEvoy next to no time to deduce that Winslow’s so-called confession is bogus, which begs the bigger question: if this fledgling thug isn’t the killer, then who is the Scarecrow? And how can one write about this stuff without giving real-life villains usable ideas?
“I think you always have to have some responsibility when you write up the bad guys,” Connelly says. “For example, I never give every step in a crime because I don’t want the books to be a primer for anybody. Most of the time, unfortunately, I am not plowing new ground. The bad guy in The Scarecrow may be unique, but the use of the Internet for nefarious deeds is nothing new. This so-called Craigslist Killer would be a case in point. The real thing is always much worse in reality than anything I put into fiction.”
A longtime cinema fan, Connelly has had only one of his books made into a movie thus far, the 2002 Clint Eastwood adaptation of Blood Work. It makes one wonder how Hollywood can pass over such intelligent and action-packed novels in favor of, say, a remake of Bewitched. “Hey, I liked Bewitched,” Connelly says with a laugh. “Seriously, though, I don’t think my books lend themselves to being made into movies, because so much of what happens in the book is in the head of the protagonist. You could do it with voice-overs, but Hollywood doesn’t like voice-overs.”
Asked if he has ever considered doing a Hitchcockian cameo role in a film of his work, Connelly says, “I visited the set of Blood Work a couple of times, but Clint Eastwood never offered me a role as an extra, and I never really thought much about it. Then Eastwood directed Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, and toward the end of the movie, Dennis was in a great cameo in the parade scene, alongside the mayor, no less! Dennis is a friend of mine, and I have given him a good deal of grief about that.”
Speaking of cameo appearances, the McEvoy character has made several, in books featuring longtime Connelly stalwarts Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller. “The idea was that all my books would be part of one big mosaic of time and place. So I consciously look for places to cross-pollinate,” Connelly says. “I needed to have a reporter in The Brass Verdict so I made him Jack McEvoy because I knew I would be writing about him next and it sort of set the table for the next book. I wish there was a device for tracking all of this. I could use one.”
Connelly is not one to rest on his laurels. Indeed, it seems he is not one to rest at all; his next book, 9 Dragons, featuring L.A. cop Harry Bosch, is due out in the fall.