by michael connelly
little, brown, 399 pages, $29.00
Below the title on the front cover of Michael Connelly’s new novel is a quote: “‘Connelly is the Raymond Chandler of this generation’—Associated Press.” This is unfair to Chandler and Connelly both. Chandler wrote like “a slumming angel,” as Ross Macdonald said. The bravura style of The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and the other titles on the Chandler shelf is one of the glories of American literature, influential worldwide. Connelly’s sentences are workmanlike, unremarkable. But Chandler couldn’t plot to save his life, whereas Connelly is a master of the art. Chandler was brilliant, undisciplined, alcoholic, demon-ridden, quick to take offense and quick to sneer; he wrote only a handful of novels. Connelly is disciplined and generous, and he excels at collaborative work (for instance, the Bosch TV series produced by Amazon) as well as solo writing; Fair Warning is his thirty-fourth novel. Chandler’s moral sense, in some ways acute, was often unreliable; Connelly’s is sounder.
In one way, though, that Associated Press tribute is right on target. Connelly has often said that a viewing of Robert Altman’s adaptation of The Long Goodbye, early in his years at the University of Florida, inspired him to read all of Chandler’s fiction in short order—and changed the direction of his life. He wanted to become a crime novelist in his own right, and the best way to prepare for that, it seemed, would be newspaper work. He changed his major to journalism, landed his first job, and eventually moved from Florida to California, where he was on the crime beat for the Los Angeles Times. He made himself at home in the capital of noir and built contacts (especially in the LAPD) that he continued to maintain long after he had become a full-time novelist.
Fair Warning is the third Connelly novel with reporter Jack McEvoy as protagonist, following The Poet (1996) and The Scarecrow (2009). McEvoy has also appeared peripherally in several other books. Like its two predecessors, Fair Warning centers on a serial killer, and were it not by Connelly—whose books I greatly enjoy and periodically reread—I probably wouldn’t have taken it up. I know that such murderers exist (though fortunately not in the numbers one might assume based on their prevalence in contemporary fiction, movies, and such), but when I encounter this trope yet again, I recoil. Consider this chapter opening:
He waited until it was dark.
He loved the silence of the Tesla. The car was like him. It moved silently and stealthily. Nobody heard him coming.
Ugh. This immediately activates my parody-generator; at the same time, I’m overcome by a mixture of weariness and revulsion. Fortunately, Connelly doesn’t often take us into the consciousness of the man known as “the Shrike” (for reasons you’ll soon learn if you read the book). And there’s much more going on, even as the pursuit of this killer drives the action.
A longtime staffer at the Los Angeles Times, Jack has long ago moved on (or down) from that position, dislocated by the crisis in the newspaper industry as brilliantly and witheringly portrayed in The Scarecrow. Connelly has accomplished in our time much of what Zola and his epigones sought to do in theirs, but he’s done so with much less huffing and puffing; his take on what gets called the “opioid crisis” (see the 2017 novel Two Kinds of Truth, featuring Harry Bosch, Connelly’s signature creation) is by far the best thing I’ve seen on the subject, fiction or nonfiction. In this new book, we find Jack working as a reporter for FairWarning, “an Internet news site with no paywall,” dedicated to protecting consumers (and kept alive by donor funding). It’s a very small operation presided over by founder and editor Myron Levin, who, like Jack, used to be at the Times.
But what might connect a consumer-protection site with the search for a serial killer who preys particularly on women? The link has to do with a company that has cashed in on the fad for DNA testing that allows individuals to trace their heredity. Jack’s tracking of this link prompts him to contact Rachel Walling, a former FBI agent who specialized in profiling killers, now—like Jack, but even more so—stripped of her former role. That she and Jack have a long history of attachment and estrangement, going all the way back to the events recounted in The Poet, adds another level of complexity to this new story.
Many current crime novelists regard themselves not simply as storytellers but as historians of the present, telling us what is “happening” with an immediacy and an imaginative depth that “the news” can’t match. Michael Connelly has been doing that for a long time, even before it became fashionable, and there is no one who does it better. I’m already looking forward to his next novel, The Law of Innocence, featuring defense attorney Mickey Haller; it’s due in November.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.