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I'd heard about this from the comics blogosphere last year but only got to see it this last week. Shaun Tan is a Chinese-Australian artist, and The Arrival is the wordless story of an immigrant's experiences in a strange new land. It's a seamless blend of tight realism and soaring fantasy, and it moved me very deeply.

What you want to do is go look at Tan's website for the page about this book. Then you should go get a copy, because the oversize, high-quality production of the book lets the illustrations shine very much more than these reduced images can convey. 

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The Scarecrow, written by Michael Connelly, published 2009
Unabridged audio book read by Peter Giles

Michael Connelly is one of my favorite mystery writers, with several solid strengths and one significant weakness. This book shows both sides clearly.

Connelly was a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times before turning to fiction full-time, and he writes the details of Southern California place and ambience as well as anyone I'm aware of this side of Raymond Chandler. Like Chandler, he writes descriptions that are clear, vivid, and thoroughly distinctive, and he folds the places and their inhabitants together well:

The Short Stop was on Sunset in Echo Park. That made it close to Dodger Stadium, so presumably it drew its name from the baseball position. It was also close to the Los Angeles Police Academy and that made it a cop bar in its early years. It was the kind of place you'd read about in Joseph Wambaugh novels, where cops came to be with their own kind and the groupies who didn't judge them. But those days were long past. Echo Park was changing. It was getting Hollywood hip and the cops were crowded out of the Short Stop by the young professionals moving into the neighborhood. The prices went up and the cops found other watering holes. Police paraphernalia still hung on the walls but any cop who stopped in nowadays was simply misinformed.

He's also one of my favorite world builders, with a network of characters connecting back and forth in ways both big and small. He's remarked in interviews on the problem for him as a reader and writer both of ongoing series: most people don't get into life-threatening, fascinating crises that often, and if it becomes routine, characters drift out of reality and into some flavor of fantasy. Having a large pool of ongoing characters lets him keep up a good writing pace without doing too much genre violence to their integrity.

In the book at hand, for instance, the narrator is reporter Jack McEvoy, whom we meet right after he's been fired from the Times and now faces the end of his reporting career. He last held center stage in the 1996 book The Poet, which was twelve years ago for the characters as well as us. In that story, he was sucked into the hunt for a serial killer good at pinning his crimes on others, and met and fell in love with FBI agent Rachel Walling, in a relationship that really couldn't work and in fact didn't, ending badly for both of them. They went their separate ways. Walling's been in at least one Connelly book since then, the 2007 The Overlook, where she has another unsuccessful relationship with recurring character LAPD homicide investigator Hieronymous "Harry" Bosch. The Scarecrow brings Rachel and Jack back together and brings in another killer given to planning ahead.

Part of the sense of place I like in Connelly's work is the sense of time. The Overlook and the earlier A Darkness More Than Night, for instance, both put a lot of emphasis on how Bush-era Homeland Security federal activities and terrorism-justified expansion of police power change police work on the ground, and not for the better. "Power gets abused" is an essential pillar in noir-flavored fiction, and Connelly's alert to it. Likewise, The Scarecrow has a lot to say about the bad state of modern newspapers, and the bad choices these force on people who'd like to investigate and report on the world around them, and also about the market in behind-the-scenes management of commercial data online. Rather than aiming for a gloss of contemporaneous feel on more or less timeless stories, Connelly explicitly embraces the moment in time as part of the story's locale, and one of the reasons I like re-reading them from time to time is that they do well evoke their moments.

(He also did something that I really loved. The 1998 Blood Work, introducing aging FBI profiler Terry McCaleb, became a Clint Eastwood movie. (Pretty good, too, with the flaw that I'll be describing below.) The next time McCaleb appears, in the 2001 A Darkness More Than Night, people keep asking him what he thought of the movie, kid him about not being as handsome as Eastwood, and like that. In that world, Eastwood dramatized a recent true story rather than adapting a recent novel. I can't recall seeing that kind of folding together of realities much.)

It's also worth noting that Connelly seems genuinely not to be a bigot. There's enough awful stuff in popular fiction that this does make his work stand out. His portrayals of women and people of color have the same kind of attention to individual detail as his white males, and this is not something I take for granted anymore. 

That's all to the good. The problem, for me, is that the actual plots aren't as good as the characters or the descriptive writing. Things get melodramatic. There are, in The Scarecrow as in most of his other books, some twists and turns that I really can't fully follow along, and that put me in sort of a narrative auto-pilot waiting for the action sequence to be over. Not all of the dramatic action does that, mind you: there's a chase and confrontation in a hotel late in this book that really did feel very convincing even with the heightened vitality. It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime sort of deal rather than an excursion into Genreland. Other scenes, not so much, at least for me. And the killer's methodology in this book is similar enough to the deception worked in The Poet that it felt strange to me that neither Jack nor Rachel called more attention to it, or drew on it when evaluating incomplete clues at a crucial moment.

So I'm left with a book that I really wish were better than it is. The whole is weaker than the sum of its parts. If you're comfortable reading for parts and like crime stories, then I highly recommend this. Otherwise, I have to suggest some caution.


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Ceri B.

April 2010

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