Revenge of the Una-Poet : FICTION : THE POET, By Michael Connelly<i> (Little, Brown: $22.95, 436 pp.)</i>
Sheeesh! This guy can write a thriller! In this compulsively readable new entry by the Edgar Award-winning author of the Hieronymus Bosch series of mysteries that includes “Black Ice” and “The Concrete Blonde,” Michael Connelly has taken a new tack, taking advantage of his extensive experience as a former police reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
His new hero, Jack McEvoy, is a crime reporter for a tabloid newspaper in Denver whose twin brother, Sean, is a homicide detective. Connelly knows this beat. The pages of this book exude the sounds and smells of the fast-paced newspaper life and give a delightful twist to familiar mystery thriller territory.
McEvoy isn’t a detective, but he knows them, and clearly, so does the author. When McEvoy’s brother turns up dead in the front seat of his car in the mountains outside Denver, an apparent suicide, McEvoy doesn’t believe it. A quotation from Edgar Allan Poe has been left at the scene as a suicide note. This and several other clues lead McEvoy to conclude that despite his brother’s depression over not being able to solve a particularly grisly homicide, his death was no suicide.
Using his skills as a reporter, McEvoy starts looking into other police suicides and turns up a series of them with Poe-related suicide notes. His conclusion: Someone is going across the country killing children and women, and then targeting the chief homicide detectives assigned to the cases. As McEvoy’s editor, an appropriately crusty newsroom hack, would say: Now, here we’ve got a story.
Connelly puts his foot on the gas and doesn’t let up for 400 pages. Hindered by his lack of police powers, McEvoy assembles enough evidence of a serial killer of cops to convince the FBI that the suicides weren’t real and that cops are getting killed right and left. He shoehorns himself into the ensuing FBI investigation as they set off in search of the killer they call “The Poet.”
Perfect. We’ve got a reporter-hero and top-notch cops going after a killer with literary pretensions, fertile ground for an author with Connelly’s background--and he works the turf for everything he’s worth. The FBI bureaucracy is rendered with an expert eye. The agents are a wonderful mix of boring and ambitious, and all of them harbor the requisite combo of revulsion and envy for McEvoy’s status as a journalist. They know right from the get-go that if they solve these crimes, he’s going to end up with book and movie deals and they’ll be left in their bad gray suits and worse shoes.
There’s a female agent, of course, with whom the hero becomes entangled. She’s smart and saddled with a loony ex-husband who’s on the same squad she’s on and enough hang-ups to make the love story, such as it is, interesting and complicated.
McEvoy, the FBI and several of the reporter’s sources combine their skills to track down the apparent killer in Los Angeles. This guy, whose name is Gladden, makes Hannibal Lecter look like a child-care worker. The chapters about the killer are brief and chilling, a perfect counterpoint to the rest of the book. By the time Gladden is cornered down on an industrial stretch of Pico Boulevard, we’re ready for the expertly executed bloodshed that follows. There’s only one problem: While Gladden has been running around the country killing women and children with alacrity, he didn’t do the cops. The killer of McEvoy’s brother is still out there.
The author roars through the final 100 pages of the book delivering twists, turns and thrills in every paragraph. The ending is rendered with icy, cold-blooded precision and readers will no doubt close the book hoping for a series of McEvoy mysteries.
While Connelly is skilled at the thriller genre, there are just enough real-life complications to the characters in this book to make you wish he’d slow down next time and spend some time on these people’s lives and let the clues fall where they may. Talent like his is rare and delicious and would be better savored at a pace that would allow everyone to age and dither and wander a bit as they deliver the thriller goods. This guy writes commercial fiction so well, he’s going to end up on the “literature” shelves along with Poe if he plays his cards right, and here’s one reader who hopes he does.
“The Poet” is available, abridged, on two audiocassettes for $16.95