When Michael Connelly decided to set his 20th crime novel, “The Scarecrow,” amid the wreckage of the American newspaper industry, he didn’t know how much grief he was letting himself in for.
Oh, the former South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Los Angeles Times reporter knew about the angst pervading the news business these days. He’d seen friends ejected from jobs as “reductions in force” devastated newsrooms. He knew he could build a plot around riffed cop-shop reporter Jack McEvoy — the protagonist of his 1996 novel “The Poet” — wanting to break one last big murder story before cleaning out his desk.
What Connelly didn’t know was that he’d have to yank his novel back from his publisher not once but twice as his death-of-newspapers angle was overtaken by events.
The first disruption came late last fall, a few days after he turned in his manuscript.
In “The Poet,” McEvoy works at the Rocky Mountain News. In “The Scarecrow” he has moved on to the Los Angeles Times. On Dec. 8, the Times’ corporate owner, the Tribune Co., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Get me a rewrite!
The second event came at the end of February. Connelly was in Florida, where he now lives, “at the first game of spring ball for the New York Yankees,” when his sister texted from Colorado to say that McEvoy’s old paper had died.
“Like most of the staffers at the Rocky Mountain News,” Connelly says, he had assumed that the Rocky “was going to be in existence” when his book came out. He’d written a scene in which, after McEvoy gets laid off by the Times, a sympathetic Rocky editor offers him his old job.
Connelly called his editor at Little, Brown. “The Scarecrow” was about to be printed. He would have to write his fix that night and confine it to a single page. So instead of a job offer, McEvoy gets a depressing message on his answering machine:
“I’ve gotta tell you the truth, man. There’s nothing out there,” the voice of his newly jobless Rocky colleague informs him. “I’m just about ready to start selling cars, but all the car dealers are in the toilet, too.”
It was a scary time. The book wouldn’t hit the stores for 2 1/2 months.
And if the New York Times Co., say, were to carry through on its April threat to pull the plug on the Boston Globe — a nightmare scenario that McEvoy would surely “have in his thoughts” — well, there would be nothing a deadline-busting novelist could do.
It’s easy to see Connelly, 52, a big man who still seems most comfortable with his shirt untucked, as the newsroom denizen he was for 14 years. What’s not as easy to see is the driven writer who from the very beginning saw journalism as a steppingstone.
Born in Philadelphia, he moved to Florida at 11 and considers Fort Lauderdale his hometown. There, as he drove home from a late-night dishwashing job, a fleeting encounter changed his life.
“What if I hadn’t looked out my car window that night when I was sixteen?” Connelly muses in the intro to “Crime Beat,” a collection of his newspaper stories. Perhaps he’d have followed his father into the construction business.
But he did look, and he saw a bearded man “running full speed toward the beach.” The man peeled off his lumberjack shirt, wrapped it around something and shoved the bundle into a hedge.
Connelly stopped, pulled out the bundle and found a gun.
Soon he was telling his story to police detectives. And he was hooked.
He started reading newspapers, then true-crime books, then crime novels. “I lived in this kind of weird fantasy where I was like those cops I spent the night with,” he says. At the University of Florida, he fell in love with Robert Altman’s film of “The Long Goodbye” and started reading Raymond Chandler.
Finally, he told his parents that he was abandoning his two years of study in building-construction engineering to pursue writing crime fiction, a “long shot at best.”
The reaction was “one of the big surprises of my life,” Connelly says. It turned out his father had dreamed of being a painter. He’d gotten into the Art Institute of Philadelphia but had to shift gears to support his family. His only question was practical — how do you prepare for a career like that? — and he came up with the answer himself:
“Why don’t you become a reporter and get a press pass?”
After graduating, Connelly put in a year at the Daytona Beach News-Journal, then wrote crime stories at the Sun-Sentinel.
“The thing people realized about Mike really quickly was his ability to capture detail,” says his old friend Scott Anderson, then a fellow Sun-Sentinel reporter.
In 1988, he moved to the Los Angeles Times. After 6 1/2 more years he had published three novels and finished a fourth, all starring a Los Angeles Police Department detective, Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch.
Why did he still need a newspaper? “I stayed probably two years longer than I needed to,” he says. “I thought my press pass was giving me access to what I needed for my books.
“But I also knew I was part of a really good thing. I was part of a newspaper you could be proud of every day.”
A few weeks after Connelly left the Times, a major earthquake hit Los Angeles, and he felt “really weird” not jumping in his car to report it. But by the time the O.J. Simpson case broke five months later, Connelly turned on his TV, saw the Times reporter who’d taken his place in the crowd outside Simpson’s house, and thought, “That could have been me, and I’m glad it isn’t.”
Now, how could he not be glad he didn’t stick around to meet the fate of Jack McEvoy — who, as “The Scarecrow” begins, learns that he has two weeks to train a cheaper, younger replacement before being “involuntarily separated” from his job.
McEvoy’s replacement, Angela Cook, is a mojo, “a mobile journalist nimbly able to file from the field via any electronic means,” Connelly writes. She’s not stupid, but she’s green. There’s no telling how many stories she’ll miss because she lacks both trustworthy sources and the experience to tell when the untrustworthy ones are lying. Throw in a deranged villain whose use of the Web to track and target humans, and McEvoy’s nemesis finds herself dangerously over her head.
No solutions necessary
Connelly gave his first draft to a number of journalist friends, including Anderson, to vet. “I sent him a note,” Anderson says. It said roughly: “Great story, good read, but you can tell it’s been awhile since you’ve worked in a newsroom.”
What modern reporter would sit through a police department news conference, then head back to the newsroom to make calls and file a story for the next day’s edition?
No, no, no! She’d be filing for the Web while the news conference was still going on — as Cook does in the reworked version of “The Scarecrow” — and she’d have no time to check the self-serving police version.
Thanks to Angela Cook, Jack McEvoy gets one last chance to rejoin the newspaper ranks. But his creator isn’t looking back. His new novel is topping best-seller lists, and the critics still love him.
But don’t expect him to solve the case of the serial killer stalking American newspapers.
“I wrote a thriller,” Connelly says. “I don’t think as a novelist I need to come up with solutions.
“If you hold up a little bit of a mirror, you’ve done your job.”