• The Scarecrow. Michael Connelly. Little, Brown. 384 pages. $27.99.
Michael Connelly's latest stand-alone novel is, not surprisingly, a riveting thriller with a flawed, fully fleshed hero, a nasty serial killer and the expected page-turning tension. But The Scarecrow is also a moving, often-angry elegy to the dying newspaper industry, of which Connelly was a part way back in the days before Harry Bosch.
The Scarecrow also harkens back to The Poet. It's mostly narrated by Los Angeles Times reporter Jack McEvoy, whose brother was one of that killer's victims. McEvoy has reappeared from time to time in Connelly's books as a minor character, but here he takes center stage, even as he's handed a pink slip.
Jack holds no illusions about the current state of journalism: ``The newspaper is supposed to be the community's watchdog and we're turning it over to the puppies. Think of all the great journalism we've seen in our lifetimes. The corruption exposed, the public benefit. Where's that going to come from now with every paper in the country getting shredded? Our government? No way. TV, the blogs? Forget it.''
But Jack isn't leaving ''The Velvet Coffin'' -- where Connelly once worked as a reporter -- without one last enticing story. The rather routine arrest of a project kid who confessed to the torture murder of an exotic dancer catches his eye. An in-depth profile of where the kid and society went wrong is the stuff of prize winners, Jack thinks, and decides to spend his last two weeks working the story, if only to stick it to the oily, greedy corporate weasels who destroyed his newspaper and career. But as he delves into the case -- his younger, cheaper, more attractive female replacement by his side -- he discovers that the murder isn't as simple as the cops think.
The backbone of The Scarecrow is, of course, the main serial-killer plot, but Connelly also deftly evokes a bittersweet mood through Jack's fury and eventual acceptance of the brave new world of journalism. Connelly is clearly affected by the changes, and anyone familiar with the newspaper biz will read this book with a profound sense of melancholy. Others will just enjoy the harrowing suspense. Any way you read it, The Scarecrow is crime fiction at its best.
''Suicide bombers are easy to spot,'' Jack Reacher tells us in the opening lines of Child's 13th suspense novel. ``They give out all kinds of telltale signs. Mostly because they're nervous. By definition they're all first-timers.''
Once a military man, now a wanderer free of possessions but with a bad habit of involvement in high-stakes violence, the imposing Reacher studied the bullet points on potential bombers with an Israeli army captain 20 years ago (11 clues for women, 12 for men: ''Male bombers take off their beards. It helps them blend in. Makes them less suspicious. The result is paler skin on the lower half of the face.'') What he doesn't expect is to be running down the list of warning signs in his head at 2 a.m. in a sparsely populated New York subway car. But he is, because there's a woman sitting nearby who meets all the criteria.
Child is famous for his can't-catch-your-breath openings, and Gone Tomorrow features one of his most provocative. The explosive confrontation that follows leads to a dangerous web of deceit, murder and international treachery (as well as more localized treachery, thanks to some squirmy, covert governmental agencies). There are also more than a few gruesome, blood-soaked sequences; Child's novels are not for the queasy. Edgy, nerve-wracking and thoroughly engrossing, Gone Tomorrow is so insanely fastpaced that it's simply over too soon.