I read the story a final time and sent it to Myron, copying William Marchand, the attorney who reviewed all FairWarning stories pro bono. We didn’t put anything up on the website that was not legally bulletproof. FairWarning was a five-person operation if you counted the reporter in Washington, DC, who worked out of her home. One “wrong story” spawning a winning lawsuit or forced settlement would put us out of business, and then I’d be what I had been at least twice before in my career: a reporter with no place to go.
—Excerpted from Fair Warning by Michael Connelly
I have always immersed myself almost obsessively in fiction, and I have almost always worked in and written about nonprofits, so I know what I’m talking about when I say that writers consistently do such a piss-poor job of portraying nonprofits in fiction that it becomes notable when they don’t. Michael Connelly (MC), best-selling writer of mysteries including The Lincoln Lawyer and the Bosch series, is that exception, creating a nonprofit setting that is recognizable and attractive even for this relatively gruesome story.
The book is Fair Warning, and it is set in and around a nonprofit news operation with a similar name. The editor of that news site in the book—and, as it turns out, in real life—is Myron Levin (ML), a dogged truth-seeker and fundraiser who divides his time between ensuring that the tiny operation produces world-class stories that will make a difference to consumers and raising the money—day by day—that will sustain it. The fact that I do not need to make a distinction between the real-life guy and the character in the story is good news, because it means that Connelly got the underlying dynamics and culture of this nonprofit type right.
Levin is not the lead character, however; that central role belongs to Jack McEvoy, who appears periodically in Connelly’s writing as a central antihero character. In this book, McEvoy is a refugee from for-profit reporting, as is Levin. Both are dedicated to the news and willing to sacrifice for it.
Before I say more about the book, I want to emphasize why I believe that this mystery novel ought to be part of an important turning point in current literature. There is, in our society, a generalized illiteracy about nonprofits—the way they function, their ethical constructs, and their purposes. This creates a sense that they are not of “the real world” even though they are in greater and greater use as a counterbalance to the excesses of extractive capitalism. And, let’s be clear, it is extractive capitalism that has led hedge funds to buy and pillage many of this nation’s news operations, then leave them for dead or substantive irrelevance. Connelly knows this, as he told me in a recent interview:
MC: The nonprofit news field provides venues where people can go to practice journalism for its intrinsic value. There’s different purposes I use the McEvoy character for, but one of them is to reflect on where we are in the newspaper business. The last McEvoy book, I think, was 11 years ago, and he was at Daily Times, and they were laying off people, and it was all about that.
I think the next evolution is, well, what happened, or where did those people go and where did the story that they would write go? And, so, I just felt like it would be good to set the story at one of these nonprofits that have developed out of the collapse of the newspaper business and feature the struggles that the nonprofits face. I support a bunch of these sites and many of them are run by people that I was in the business with when I was a newspaper reporter.
So, it comes as no surprise that Connelly got Levin’s character right; not only does he sit on the board of FairWarning, but he’s known Levin since the Eighties, when they were both reporters at the L.A. Times. In some ways, he still sees himself as a journalist even as he is writing fiction.
MC: I write fiction, but there’s a lot of realism in it, and I go about the process like a journalist. You know, I want to be accurate. If I’m writing about L.A., I want to get the politics, the procedure, the locations, I want to get all that right and one of the ways I do it is I go out like a reporter, you know, with a notebook in my back pocket and my cell phone camera. And so I do a lot of the preparation to write fiction the way a newspaper reporter would do it to write a news story. You know, I take cops out to breakfast and ask them questions.
Actually, in this book in particular, Fair Warning, there’s an author’s note in the back about how what is in this book about DNA, as far as DNA research and as far as government protocols and regulations about DNA. That’s all accurate. It was accurate as of the time I wrote the book and as far as I know it’s still accurate. You know, there aren’t any regulations, and that’s what the “fair warning” in the book is.
Still, Levin was surprised when Connelly proposed the book concept:
ML: In August of 2019, I got an email from Mike saying, essentially, this might sound weird, but for my next book, which is another book in this Jack McEvoy series, I want to put McEvoy in your newsroom as an employee there. If you don’t want me to, that’s fine, and if the board needs to approve it, that’s fine, also—and, by the way, here are the first 50 pages of the first draft.
The board, as it turned out, thought the whole thing was a fine idea. The project surged for