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June 25th, 2009
An Idle Word: A must-read summer thriller

An Idle Word: A Column

Summer is finally here (I guess all those 100 degree plus days before last weekend don’t count) and as we all know it the time for summer reading—thrillers, chillers and other staples of the stay in the air conditioning or by the pool literary entertainment.

As a mystery connoisseur, several weeks ago I recommended five books by relatively unknown writers that were worth picking up (I would since add Joe Gores’ “Archer and Spade,’ a prequel to the seminal American crime novel, “The Maltese Falcon,” which details how Sam Spade and his ill-fated partner Miles Archer formed their partnership, ending with secretary Effie Perrine telling Spade, “ There’s a girl here waiting too see you. Her name’s Wonderly”—the very words that launched the search for the Falcon).

But the big guns can always be counted on for summer releases and this year is no exception. Most of my mystery-loving friends consider James Lee Burke the greatest living American mystery writer and it’s hard to argue (Burke does have a book due out this summer).

But for me, the drop whatever you’re reading and pick it up crime writer is Michael Connelly, best known for his series about the rather tightly-wound Los Angeles Homicide Detective Hieronymus “Harry “ Bosche—like the Dutch artist, although I don’t think he was known as Harry to his friends.

The Bosche books are destined to be classics of the mean streets of L.A. like those of Joseph Wambaugh and James Ellroy (“L.A. Confidential, “ “The Black Dahlia”).

However, Connelly also writes excellent stand-alone novels such as “Blood Work,” which Clint Eastwood made into a fair movie and 1996’s “The Poet,’ about Denver police reporter Jack McEvoy, whose coverage about the titular serial killer propels him into the investigation. Since, Connelly was once a police reporter, there might have been a little fantasy projection involved.

Thirteen years later, Connelly has brought McEvoy back for his new release, “The Scarecrow,” and it’s every bit as good as the earlier novel, only now serving not only as a thrilling read but a bit of an obituary for Connelly’s old profession.

The fame of his role in the Poet case and subsequent book have propelled McEvoy from the Rocky Mountains to the Los Angeles Times but his very fame and salary status have now proved his undoing.

With print journalism, going the way of the telegraph, the paper is now downsizing by 100 reporters and Jack is number 99, the last of the “-30-” writers on the staff, making way for younger and lesser-paid reporters.

Astute readers of this blog may have noticed that my column sometimes carries the number “-30-“ at the end. It’s the old-fashioned way of signaling to the typesetter that story is concluded.

After the requisite drunken binge, he decides he needs to go out with a bang after a colleague tells him about another laid off reporter who fabricated a hoax story as his going away present. He decides to do just the opposite—writing a big one that will let the bosses know what they’re letting go.

He gets his chance when he recalls an irate call from the mother of a gang member, who is charged with what appears to be a routine abduction and murder. His subsequent investigation reveals something more sinister and nationwide.

Connelly is such a good writer that he has proved successful in writing the Bosch books in both third person and first person. In “The Scarecrow,” he demonstrates his chops (and prevents any reviewer from playing “spoiler”) by identifying the real murderer on the first page of the first chapter (first word to be exact). But that will not prevent you from turning the page.

I started on Saturday morning and finished Sunday evening.

Along the way, the reporter reunites with the female FBI agent who helped him in breaking the Poet case. His only problem –aside from now being a target—is becoming the story so he can’t write the coda he envisioned. But he still receives the satisfaction in leaving print journalism on his own terms—in more ways than breaking the big story.

Since you’re reading this on-line, you may not even feel the sense of loss of the hold-in-your-hand papers. But don’t feel too smug. It turns out “Scarecrow” is also a cyber term and reading this book may make you wary of where you go and what you put on-line.

As I mentioned earlier this is not one of the unknown finds. It was Number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list last week and dropped to number three this week. And the good news at the end of the book is that there’s a new Bosch book coming this fall.

It’s been three years since high-strung Harry—who spends almost as much time fighting inter-department politics and federal interference as solving murders—prowled the streets of L.A. so I can’t wait.



TO MARKH, DIANA & WINTON: Thanks for the kind words on the funerals of two fine gentlemen. Like me, I suspect the three of you have all written obituaries over the course of your careers and appreciate the value they serve as “mini-biographies” and for some, unlike Mr. Gregg or Jeff Henderson, the only time their stories will ever appear in the paper (wish I could be so lucky). I would commend to you a book entitled “The Dead Beat” by Marilyn Johnson, a witty and poignant tribute to the culture of obituary writing.

Finally, this gives me a chance to pass on one of my favorites stories from my good friend and collector of Irish humor Professor Al Sullivan. Al tells the story of the demise of a certain Irishman named Murphy, whose widow calls the local paper to post the obituary.

Told that under the paper’s policies, that the first five word of the obituary are free of charge with a small set price for each word thereafter, the Widow Murphy pauses for a moment before dictating the notice of her husband’s departure—“Murphy’s dead. Toyota for sale.”

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