One last story for reporter

The novels and short stories we conveniently pigeonhole as "genre fiction" often are the tripwires of our literature's social consciousness.

It's unsurprising, therefore, that the first fictional work to take the newspaper industry's agonizing decline as its backdrop is a mystery, nor that its author, Michael Connelly, is a onetime crime reporter who spent the last years of his print career at the Los Angeles Times. He's one of the masters of contemporary crime fiction with a Stakhanovite work ethic that must have delighted his city room editors as much as it now does his legions of fans. "The Scarecrow" is his 20th novel and 21st book since 1993. It's also his best work since "The Poet" 13 years ago and revives that bestselling novel's main character, newspaper police reporter Jack McEvoy.

Back then, McEvoy was toiling for Denver's Rocky Mountain News -- now closed, as this new book acknowledges -- and since has published a bestselling true crime book and been hired onto the staff of the Los Angeles Times at a big salary. These days, that's like having a large target painted on your back, and "The Scarecrow" opens with McEvoy being called into a supercilious assistant managing editor's office and given notice that he's being laid off -- with a two-week grace period to train his replacement, a newly minted J-school grad with dewy cheeks and an ability to file with equal superficiality to every online, broadcast and hand-held "platform" imaginable.

McEvoy agrees to the arrangement, partly because he needs the checks and partly because he hopes to convey to his young replacement something of the "nobility" he believes the best of his cop sources keep so well-concealed. Before much of that can occur, though, a rambling phone call from the relative of a murder suspect (concerning whose arrest Jack has written a brief item) sets him on the trail of a chilling serial killer in a quest to do one final blowout murder story that will serve as "the tombstone" for his newspaper career. Along the way, he'll be reunited with an old flame, FBI profiler Rachel Walling (as Connelly fans will recall, she's also had a fling with tormented detective Harry Bosch), and he'll find himself pursued, in turn, by a master manipulator of the same new cyber culture that's killing the newspapers he loves.

To reveal more would undercut the pleasures of Connelly's masterful narrative, which proceeds in alternate chapters -- Jack's in the first person; the Scarecrow's in the third, which adds to this particularly chilling heavy's creepy aspect. It's a terrific device. Connelly always has been frank about his admiration for Raymond Chandler. It's a high bar to set for oneself, but he comes as close to clearing it as any mystery writer of his generation.

This paper was a big place when Connelly worked here and, despite the overlap, we never met. (Nowadays, with the staff less than half the size it was then, you can pretty easily memorize all your colleagues' blood types.) Still, his success always has seemed one of the important coda to The Times' now vestigial tradition of attaching a special value to narrative journalism, to the way it nourished -- some would say indulged -- the talents that produced it and to the reputation it once enjoyed throughout the industry as "a writer's newspaper."

Irish fans

In Ireland, some years ago, I wandered into a small but well-stocked Cork city bookshop that sells only true crime and mystery novels and spotted a few paperback edition copies of a book I'd co-written.

Surprised, I asked the owner whether she'd sold many copies. "They're all gone but those on the shelf," she said, and -- when I mentioned that I was the co-author -- she asked me to sign the four that remained.

"Would you still be a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, then?" she asked, as I scrawled my name in that caricature of the Palmer Method that drove at least three nuns to confess the sin of despair.

"I am," I said.

"Do you know Mike Connelly, so?" she asked. I confessed that I didn't.

"Ah," she sighed, "he's very popular here." I suppose the name doesn't hurt, I quipped. "No," she said. "It's the way he does Los Angeles -- all strange and gritty and magical all at once. Does he get it right, Los Angeles?"

"Spot on," I replied.

"I knew it, so," she said, smiling broadly around that quick intake of breath with which Cork women punctuate their sentences.

A few discrepancies

And so he does through most of "The Scarecrow," though six years' absence and 3,000 miles of distance (Connelly lives in Florida now) make for the occasional bobble. Sadly, it's been a long time since anybody came to newspaper journalism because "deep down, every journalist wants to be a novelist. It's the difference between art and craft. Every writer wants to be considered an artist. . . . "

Would that were so. Similarly, nobody ever went to the Short Stop bar for a glass of wine, not even the cheap stuff, and if McEvoy really worked on his post-layoff drunk by ordering an Irish Car Bomb, they've added a Guinness tap since the days when I occasionally met my robbery homicide sources there.

(And just to clear up a couple of mysteries for McEvoy/ Connelly's benefit -- the "Velvet Coffin" was a name for The Times coined by the late Jim Bellows, when he was the paper's associate editor. The Short Stop, which is just down the hill from Dodger Stadium, originally was a baseball writers' bar, owned, partly as I recall, by one of the guys from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.)

McEvoy sets out on what ultimately becomes his breakneck pursuit of the Scarecrow by exiting The Times, as generations of reporters have done, through the paper's main lobby on 1st Street: "The globe lobby was the formal entrance to the newspaper building at the corner of First and Spring," he writes. "A brass globe the size of a Volkswagen rotated on a steel axis at the center of the room. The many international bureaus and outposts of The Times were permanently notched on the raised continents, despite the fact that many had been shuttered to save money. The marble walls were adorned with photos and plaques denoting the many milestones in the history of the paper, the Pulitzer Prizes won and the staffs that won them, and the correspondents killed in the line of duty. It was a proud museum, just as the whole paper would be before too long. The word was that the building was up for sale.

"But I only cared about the next twelve days. I had one last deadline and one last murder story to write. I just needed that globe to keep turning until then."

Many who remain know exactly that feeling. The lobby, by the way, is a historic monument, and Connelly might also have mentioned its striking Art Deco murals and curiously androgynous brass reliefs dedicated to the races of man, the signs of the zodiac and the arts and sciences.

There are busts of dead Chandlers arrayed around the rotunda, like the forgotten gods of a fading tribe. Presidents and kings once passed them as they entered and left the building; so did captains of every imaginable industry, Nobel Prize winners and great artists of every genre in which we express ourselves.

'Faith in California'

Years ago, I watched Cesar Chavez pause, survey all that ornate grandeur, shake his head and chuckle, as I walked him to the door after lunch in one of the grand upstairs dining rooms in which the paper's editors used to host daily important guests. I once saw the disgraced Richard Nixon, by then long retired, stop there to work a visibly bemused class of visiting second-graders as if they'd be voting in his next election. They hadn't a clue who he was, and their teacher and chaperons looked stunned and vaguely alarmed.

Like all the others, Chavez and Nixon and the second-graders had passed beneath the entrance doors' marble lintel with its famous inscription: "This building stands as a symbol of faith in California."

Connelly is as quick on his feet as any novelist working, so it would be unfair to hold him too strictly accountable for not keeping up with every twist in The Times' downward spiral. It is, after all, a breaking story. For the record, though, if Jack McEvoy set off after the Scarecrow this afternoon, he couldn't leave through the Globe Lobby.

It's been closed -- as an economy measure.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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