Since my riveting binge of the TV show Bosch during last year’s lockdown, I’ve started reading Michael Connelly’s books focused on his most successful character and reached volume nr. 6 so far, but I’ve become aware that this very prolific author has written a good number of other standalone novels or series, so I decided to expand my search in a wider circle: once I found out that The Poet, first book in the Jack McEvoy series, is also connected to one of the next books for Harry Bosch, I decided to try it – learning that the story was about the search for a serial killer was also a strong motivator.
Jack McEvoy is a journalist specialized in the analysis of violent crimes: when his twin brother Sean, a detective with the Denver PD, takes his own life, Jack is shocked but led to think, along everyone else, that Sean was depressed because of his inability to solve a brutal murder he was working on. Searching for details on the case, Jack finds some evidence that seems to indicate Sean’s death could have been a murder disguised as a suicide, and so he starts a search that points toward a serial killer whose actions have eluded the attention of the police and also of the FBI, that is now called into action to uncover the truth under a so-far ignored chain of police officers’ “suicides”. With the help of FBI agent Rachel Walling, Jack joins the pursuit of the killer nicknamed “The Poet” from the Edgar Allan Poe quotes found on the murder scenes: the journalist is driven by the need to discover the truth about what happened to Sean, of course, but there is also the possibility of a huge scoop on the horizon, because discovery and capture of the Poet will gain nationwide attention…
The Poet starts in a quiet, almost sedate way, but once the narrative gears are set in motion the story takes on the speed of an avalanche, inexorably advancing toward the final showdown (which works also as a “to be continued” because not everything is resolved here): I have by now become familiar with Connelly’s narrative style and his successful way of taking the readers through wrong turns and blind alleys, or to trick them with some misleading clues, but here he literally does it with a vengeance, delivering a compulsive read that I found difficult to put down. One of the winning elements in this novel is the change in POV, which alternates between Jack McEvoy (presented in third person) and William Gladden, the killer (presented in first person): where Jack’s segments prove quite intriguing, because the cat-and-mouse game between law enforcement and its prey is based on the collection of clues and a desperate battle against time, Gladden’s sections take us into the mind of this man who is not only a cold-blooded murderer, but also a very organized pedophile, which adds an element of horror to the whole story – not the horror of supernatural monsters, which we can easily dismiss because we subconsciously know they don’t exist, but the horror of a very real, dangerous and disturbed mind.
Considering the subject matter and the kind of emotional triggers it involves, I admired the author’s very light hand in dealing with it and in focusing more on the psychological aspects of the issue rather than on its more shocking ones, while refraining from any kind of moral judgment. On one hand we learn that Gladden was the victim of abuse in his childhood, but on the other we cannot forget that he’s become in turn the monster whose victims have suffered the same kind of abuse before being murdered: both facts are presented as starkly and unemotionally as possible, leaving any form of further consideration to the readers themselves, which is a choice I always appreciate.
Strangely enough, while I literally devoured the novel, I could never feel any kind of attachment to the main character: with any other story this might have proved counterproductive, but in this case the excitement of the chase ended up offering the kind of balance I needed to counteract my displeasure with McEvoy. What I did not like in him is the kind of duality at the roots of his character: of course he wants to know the truth of what happened to his brother, of course he wants justice for him and all the other victims, but underneath it all there is always the need to turn it into the next Great Story, to win the fame and acclaim he craves, even if he does not consciously admit it. Connelly’s characters are more often than not flawed, which makes them human and relatable, but I found Jack’s flaws irritating, and his desire to glean the hard facts for the sake of a Pulitzer-worthy series of articles feels… sinful, for want of a better word, because the victim who started the whole search was his brother, and from where I stand gaining fame and recognition from the death of a loved one feels like an empty accomplishment, if not a vile one.
FBI agent Rachel Walling is, on the other hand, an intriguing character who I believe deserved more narrative space, so I hope that her return in the Harry Bosch novel linked to this one will offer further insights into her personality. What we see here is an individual who is both driven and ambitious, but holds some darkness from the past, and I look forward to learning more about her. Her romantic relationship with McEvoy in The Poet never convinced me fully, partly because of my expressed prejudice against him, and partly because it seemed to evolve too quickly, just as it ended equally quickly, and since there is no POV from Rachel it’s impossible to get into her mind and see what makes her tick.
If, toward the end, the novel falters a little as it falls into the time-honored device of having the bad guy offer a long, drawn-out explanation to McEvoy before trying to kill him, it picks up by leaving the door open for the further exploits of the Poet, to which I certainly look forward. Given my lack of empathy with the main character, I doubt I will read other books in the Jack McEvoy series, but on the other hand The Poet confirmed that Michael Connelly is the first of my go-to authors when I am in the mood for a good thriller or a crime novel. And there’s still a lot of ground of explore there…