The detective novel has from its beginning been a dark genre, acknowledging the unmanageably violent impulses of a significant proportion of society, including many of those responsible for upholding and enforcing its values. Many classic detective novels portrayed corruption as omnipresent and emphasized the physical, moral, and emotional vulnerability of all people, and, as the genre has developed, its generic landscape has darkened even further. The classic detective story, particularly of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, was by no means always confidently optimistic, but there was usually some reassurance that the combined powers of reason, goodwill, and heroic effort could keep murderers, maniacs, and criminals at bay. They would always return, but they could be reliably combated by such figures as C. Auguste Dupin (in several groundbreaking stories by Edgar Allan Poe), Sherlock Holmes (in the works of Arthur Conan Doyle), and Nayland Smith (in Sax Rohmer’s many popular Fu Manchu novels).
The modern detective storyhard to date precisely, but running from the about the 1920’s to the 1970’sconveyed somewhat less reassurance, as victims and detectives alike were increasingly overwhelmed by a violence that was inescapable, inscrutable, and systemic as well as personal. Such novels depicted threats to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that were not only often psychopathic but also sometimes surprisingly “typical,” not so much aberrant as symptomatic of an entire society strikingly out of balance. Individual detectives, such as the classic model described by Raymond Chandler, were principled and admirable, but they were often compromised in their inevitably losing battle to protect the publicand themselvesin the “mean streets” of an undeniably mean world.
Michael Connelly’s The Scarecrow is a good example of a further stage in the development of the genre, the contemporary or postmodern detective story that takes darkness to an even grimmer level. The intensity of its threats is enormous: Violence is common and extreme; dangerous people easily masquerade as being harmless and respectable, and they have no difficulty assuming positions of power from which they can manipulate the fates of others, as well as torture and kill them freely. No one is safemurder victims in The Scarecrow include a drug addict and exotic dancer as well as a corporate executive and nearly include the two main characters, a newspaper reporter and an FBI agent. Each protagonist is saved not by any power of intelligence or physical strength but by accident. Still, the reporter and the agent are extremely resourceful, and, as it turns out, that quality is essential to their limited success. Indeed, they must rely on their own resources because, as Connelly details, their support systemsin fact, the support systems for society at largeare crumbling and other developments in contemporary culture seem to work to the advantage of a new generation of predators.
Connelly is well known for his ongoing series of novels featuring Harry Bosch, a Los Angeles policeman, but he uses a stand-in for a detective in The Scarecrow: Jack McEvoy, a journalist, was one of the main characters in a previous novel by Connelly, The Poet (1996), which was also about the pursuit of a serial killer. The substitution is telling. Connelly himself was a longtime crime reporter for a newspaper before he turned to writing detective novels, and there is a natural connection between the two professions, not only because the one inevitably writes about the actions of the other but moreso because they play similar, critical roles in a properly functioning society. “To protect and serve” might well be the motto of a newspaper as well as of a police department, and much of The Scarecrow focuses on the extent to which the current economic climate is stripping newspapers of their power to fulfill these functions.
The novel is for the most part character-centered and driven by suspenseful action, but the action is carefully set against a broad background that is perhaps equally interesting: the decline of a newspaper from an institution of investigation and responsible surveillance supporting society’s highest values and goals to a corporate profit center and medium of distraction. This decline transforms the newspaper from a social resource, protecting citizens from corruption and crime, into a vehicle that exploits its readers’ fascination with the dark side of life without shielding them from it. With subtle irony, Connelly devises a plot that ties a technological impetus for the decline of newspapers to the success of a serial killer: The Internet is killing the Los Angeles Times, by drawing away advertisers and decreasing the...
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