With so much attention paid to his regular cast of grizzled detectives and rogue lawyers it’s easy to forget there’s another character lurking in Michael Connelly’s ever-expanding Connelly-verse, journalist Jack McEvoy. True, Jack doesn’t get much ink these days, his only solo outings being 1996’s The Poet and 2009’s The Scarecrow, with the occasional appearance in the Bosch and Mickey “The Lincoln Lawyer” Haller books. It’s odd we don’t see more of the character, given his creator’s history as a crimes journalist in the City of Angels.
After last year’s Renée Ballard & Harry Bosch The Night Fire romp it’s a good time to take a break from hardboiled detective murder mysteries with Fair Warning and focus on… another hardboiled murder mystery, only this time with investigative journalism.
After flaming out as both a newspaper journalist and novel writer Jack now works for FairWarning, an online only non-profit with a special focus on being “tough watchdog journalism for the consumer”. The site is run by Myron Levin, a legendary reporter who once filed a story so intense it caused its subject to bleed from the rectum. The money isn’t great, but Myron gives him free reign to write the stories he wants with minimal ballbusting – as long as those stories stay on topic.
Things heat up when Jack is visited by two LAPD detectives investigating the brutal murder of Christina Portrero, a woman Jack hooked up with a year prior. Cause of death was listed as atlanto-occipital dislocation (AOD), i.e. “internal decapitation“, and given his relationship with the deceased the cops demand a sample of Jack’s DNA to prove whether he’s the killer or not.
Jack’s journalism instincts kick in and he thinks there might be an angle that fits right in with FairWarning’s audience, cyberstalking. Myron, against all ethical standards, such as Jack being a person of interest in Christina’s murder, allows him to proceed with the story. This leads to exploring the legally opaque world of DNA analytics, where people submit their genetics to labs to uncover the hidden mysteries and ancestral secrets embedded within. While researching one name kept coming up: GT23, a genetics lab that would get the job done for a measly sum of just $23. To offset costs, GT23 would then sell the results of their (supposedly anonymous) analysis to data-hungry biotech firms willing to pay for it.
Working backwards from other unsolved AOD cases, Jack quickly sees a terrifying pattern begin to emerge, where women with a specific DNA gene who submitted their DNA to GT23 were murdered just like Christina. That gene would be DRD4, or dirty four, the genetic sequence believed to be responsible for risky behaviors, like sex addiction. Jack realizes his cyberstalking story may have just blossomed into something bigger and more sinister: a serial killer in one the loose, hunting women using their DNA profile.
He sets out “gathering string”, old newspaper speak for getting as much info as possible, which includes enlisting the help of former FBI agent Rachel Walling, his former partner (romantically and professionally) now working as a solo private investigator. Connelly fans will love seeing her back in action, though her role here serves – as always – mostly that of a deux ex machina and reminder of how things used to be.
From here the investigation shifts from traditional journalism to more familiar territory for a Connelly novel, mainly solid detective sleuthing. Connelly wisely reveals his serial killer almost upfront, a mystery man with serious connections in the DNA game calling himself “The Shrike” (rhymes with bike), most likely named after meat-eating birds referred to as butcherbirds. It’s an appropriately brutal name for an appropriately brutal killer, even for a series that has featured murderous pedophiles and serial killers before.
Along the way we’ll hear commentary on everything from online messaging systems, corrupt cops, sex-crazed incels, the assault on journalism and, of course, fake news. Always at the front is the need for “real” reporting, stories that really mean something, regardless of where – or how – they’re published. Connelly has always used the Jack McEvoy novels to parallel changes happening in the “real” world of journalism and here the most pronounced is the dominance of maverick reporting on blogs and the true crime podcast phenomenon.
Only it’s hard to extol the virtues of real journalism when your hero is constantly blurring the lines between ethical and reckless behavior, a vigilante reporter who’ll do whatever it takes to get the story. Throughout are mini history lessons in heroic reporting, such as Woodward and Bernstein (“the greatest journalism tag team in history”) and publishing the Pentagon Papers. These mixed messages would be a lot more tolerable if only the Jack McEvoy character wasn’t so blandly forgettable.
Despite whatever good intentions Michael Connelly may have had with Fair Warning, both as a fictional missive about the crumbling state of modern journalism or the real-world non-profit news organization that bears its name, I couldn’t help but feel like Fair Warning (the book) was as much a donation drive for the real FairWarning (the website) as it was a crime novel. That’s not a slight on either, and longtime fans should find this new adventure with Jack McEvoy good enough until the next Bosch novel hits later this year.
The audiobook version includes a bonus “extra” that’s actually a talk between Connelly and the real-life Myron Levin discussing Fair Warning (the website), its mission, the importance of real journalism and money.