Question: It has been quite a few years since reporter Jack McEvoy was featured in The Poet. What made you decide to write about him again?
Michael Connelly: Being a former newspaper reporter, I’ve watched in recent years as the newspaper economy has crumbled and newspapers have tried to figure out ways to deal with advertising and readers shifting to the Internet. Along the way, many people I worked with have lost their jobs to buyouts or layoffs. I am also a big fan of the television show The Wire. In its last season, the show explored in a secondary plot what was happening to the newspaper business. Watching that show made me want to take a shot at a story that would be a thriller first and a torch song for the newspaper business second.
Q: In The Scarecrow, Jack is in his last days of working for the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper you used to work for as a reporter. Sadly, the Rocky Mountain News, Jack’s newspaper in The Poet, has shut down production forever. How did that affect the writing of this book?
MC: As with any sort of downward spiral, the closer you get to the end, the tighter the circles become. In the writing process and thereafter, I kept hearing of things that were happening and had to try to get them into the story. The Times is meant to represent the entire business — all newspapers. So I might hear of something happening at one paper and I would incorporate it into my story of the Times. But after the book was finished, the spiral continued. The day after I turned in the manuscript, the Times’s parent company filed for bankruptcy. This necessitated several changes in the manuscript. Three days after the book was supposedly locked and ready to be printed, the Rocky Mountain News closed. This meant we had to unlock the book and make changes. Since then, the Times has announced plans to close more foreign bureaus this summer. Sadly, it goes on and on. In many ways, I wish the book weren’t so timely, because what is making it timely is all of this bad news for newspapers.
Q: What is your biggest fear about the decline of newspapers and daily print journalism?
MC: I understand and even accept the shift to online news. What I worry about is the reliability of the news and the loss of vigilance. Anybody can start a web site, write a blog or hold themselves out as a journalist. But the newspaper is an institution (the Rocky Mountain News was 150 years old) with set standards and requirements of journalists. It is also the central point of community news. It usually sets the stage for what is important and what is news. A lot of that will be lost. There will be no central place for news. There will be dozens of web sites that people will probably pick according to their political persuasion. Ultimately, it will be the public that loses here. A friend of mine who lost her job in the business says that you can bet on government corruption becoming the growth industry because there will be no watchdogs like there are at newspapers. The thing I wonder is whether a bunch of news web sites and bloggers could ever bring down a corrupt president the way Nixon was felled by the Washington Post and other papers. At the moment, I doubt it.
Q: Did you make up the name the “Velvet Coffin” (“a place to work so pleasurable that you would easily slip in and stay till you died”) to describe the Los Angeles Times, or was it really called this back when you were a reporter there?
MC: That was its nickname when I went to work there in 1988. I remember people in the business telling me that I had made it to the velvet coffin. That it would be my last stop because it didn’t get any better than working for the L.A. Times. I remember if they sent you somewhere on a story, they flew you first class. In the early ’90s its circulation grew to over 1.2 million and it was the largest daily newspaper in the country. It’s got less than two-thirds of that circulation now, and it is still declining.
Q: In The Scarecrow, you bring FBI agent Rachel Walling and journalist Jack McEvoy back together for the first time since The Poet. In recent years we’ve seen Rachel working closely with LAPD detective Harry Bosch and falling in and out of a romantic relationship with him. Do you think Jack is a better match for Rachel than Harry is?
MC: I think the thing about my books is that nobody matches up well, and in the friction of these relationships is some of the drama I need for each story. For the moment, at least, Jack fits better with Rachel because he needs her more than Harry does. Harry has sort of built himself to need no one on any level. Jack is not that way, and I think that would make him more attractive to Rachel. The question is who and what does Rachel need. I am not sure yet because I need to explore this character more. I hope I get the chance.
Q: I think your killer, The Scarecrow, is by far the creepiest one you have ever written. What elements do you think you need to create a truly terrifying fictional killer?
MC: Prior to this, I’ve written from the killer’s point of view only two other times. One of those times was with The Poet. Since that was a Jack McEvoy/Rachel Walling story, I decided to do it again here. The truth is, the villains are easiest to create because there are no bounds. The creepier your imagination can go, the better. I think the thing to remember is that these sorts of people need to square their crimes with themselves. So they have built-in mechanisms that allow them to live with themselves and that give them plausible explanations for why they are the way they are. When they become true believers in the cancer that affects their character, they are really frightening.
Q: Care to explain how the Scarecrow, Wesley Carver, got his name?
MC: He operates a data storage center. This is a hermetically sealed environment where there are rows and rows of servers for storing digital information. Businesses anywhere in the world can instantly back up their vital records to centers like these. These are often called farms by people in the business because of the rows and rows of servers set up like crops, and because most often they are located outside urban areas — in traditional farming areas — for security reasons. As the man charged with keeping intruders off the crops, so to speak, Carver is like a scarecrow watching over the farm.
Q: Identity theft, cyberstalking, computer hacking, and the sharing of sexual perversities are just some of the ways the Internet is used by predators in The Scarecrow. It is not the first time you have used the Internet to showcase crime. Why does it make for such a good playground for evil?
MC: I think I write about the Internet so often because it is such a force of positive change in my lifetime. But with the good comes the bad. For every invention that positively changes the world, there will be those who turn it toward the dark side. That is the grist of fiction as well as social reflection. I find it fascinating, if not scary as hell, that the Internet is the great meeting place in our time for all things. This is including the bad. People with similar perversities and aberrant tastes find one another on the Internet every day. It breeds acceptance. To me, the scariest lines in the whole book are what Rachel says about this to Jack: “Meeting people with shared beliefs helps justify those beliefs. It emboldens. Sometimes it’s a call to action.”