It was Connelly's fifth novel and the first that didn't feature his most frequent protagonist, LAPD detective Harry Bosch. Instead, the main character is Jack McEvoy, a newspaper reporter who specializes in the crime beat and, specifically, murder. His world is rocked when his twin brother Sean, a homicide cop, kills himself by a bullet to the head.
Jack resolves to write about his brother's death. He is skeptical of the suicide theory and eventually discovers that sure enough, Sean's death was a carefully planned murder. It turns out that there is a serial killer going around the country targeting homicide cops. The killer makes a habit of quoting Edgar Allan Poe works, which earns him the nickname of "The Poet". The FBI takes over the investigation, and brings Jack along, which leads to romance when Jack meets attractive FBI agent Rachel Walling.
A parallel story follows William Gladden, a murderous pedophile who makes his living selling child pornography on the dark Internet. The two stories converge when the FBI zeroes in on Gladden as the killer and sets up a trap.
Eight years later Connelly returned to the Poet story in a sequel, The Narrows. Connelly would later write another Jack McEvoy novel, The Scarecrow, and still later a third McEvoy novel, Fair Warning.
Tropes present in this work:
- After-Action Villain Analysis: Jack recounts how the FBI tried to understand after the fact what was going on with Bob Backus. Apparently when he was a boy, his father would cuff him to the towel bar in the shower if Bob wet the bed. Jack himself noticed how Bob was a Neat Freak. An old girlfriend said that Bob wanted her to shower both before and after sex.
- Alone with the Psycho: Climaxes with Jack McEvoy trapped alone with the titular killer.
- Angsty Surviving Twin: Jack is driven to understand the suicide of his twin brother the cop—and later to catch his murderer.
- Book Ends: The first and last chapters begin with the same sentence—"Death is my beat."
- Chekhov's Gun: Jack discovers that someone from the FBI made calls to the Quantico main line and to the prison holding Gladden's cell mate, Horace Gomble. This seems unimportant until Jack finds out that the fax from The Poet came in to the Quantico main line and that Gomble was running a child porn website from his prison.
- Cigarette of Anxiety: Jack gets so nervous after thinking he's being stalked by The Poet that he has to light up. (As the ending reveals, he was right.)
- Continuity Nod: The Poet was the first non-Bosch Michael Connelly novel, and it has fewer Continuity Nods than any other Connelly book. But it does have one: a news article Gladden reads about himself in the L.A. Times is written by Keisha Russell, the crime reporter introduced in The Last Coyote, establishing this story as part of the Harry Bosch universe. (Later books would have more; Rachel Walling works with Harry Bosch on a couple of cases.) There are also some more subtle allusions; see Mythology Gag below.
- Danger — Thin Ice: In the back story. Jack is still guilt-ridden about the death of his sister when he was a child. The family was at a lake, Jack went out onto the ice, and his older sister Sarah went out to fetch him. Sarah, being older and heavier, fell through the ice, and died.
- Detective Mole: Bob Backus, the FBI agent in charge of the task force hunting for the Poet, is himself the Poet.
- Evil Sounds Deep: In the audiobook version, the performer adopts a low, husky voice for Agent Backus. Counts as a kind of Rewatch Bonus.
- Fair-Play Whodunnit: Won an award.
- Gun Struggle: The confrontation between McEvoy and Gladden ends with Gladden fatally shot in the chest.
- He Who Fights Monsters: This trope is discussed when the FBI is trying and failing to understand what led Bob Backus to this.
- Identical Twin ID Tag: Jack and Sean McEvoy "had always gone to great lengths to forge separate identities".
- Intrepid Reporter: Going so far as to solve murders by himself.
- It's Personal: Jack is motivated to catch his brother's killer.
- Jurisdiction Friction: Discussed, and even pretty evident when Jack's own investigation is "big-footed" by the Feds, even though he's a reporter and not a cop. Most evident when Thorson visits the San Diego PD to take possession of their evidence on Gladden; included in the box a Polaroid photo of an anus, in an envelope marked "FBI Eyes Only."
- Leeroy Jenkins: The FBI has a carefully prepared bust in which they will lure Gladden into the camera store, sell him the camera, and then arrest him as he leaves. Thorson, manning the register at the camera store, instead tries to make the arrest himself. This gets him killed when Gladden pulls a knife and plunges it into Thorson's neck.
- Meet Cute: Jack meets Rachel Walling for the first time when she arrests him. (The FBI has found out about his independent investigation.)
- Most Writers Are Writers: Jack is a crime reporter, as was Michael Connelly before hitting it big as a novelist.
- Mythology Gag: A couple of veiled references to earlier Connelly novels.
- The FBI stashes Det. Thomas, the man thought to be the Poet's next target, at the Mark Twain Hotel. Walling comments that "Hollywood Station" often stashes witnesses there. Harry Bosch, LAPD homicide cop out of Hollywood station, does just that in The Black Echo.
- Another very subtle one at the end, when Backus takes Jack to the FBI safehouse on Mulholland. They note all the cantilevered houses on the hillside held up by pylons and talk about how those would not be great places to be during an earthquake. Harry Bosch lives in just such a house (on Woodrow Wilson Drive, off of Mulholland) and in 1995 novel The Last Coyote, Bosch's house has been condemned after damage suffered in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
- Named Like My Name: Gladden is part of the "PTL Network," which leads to momentary confusion on Rachel's part when it is revealed by the team going through his computer.Walling: Praise The Lord?Clearmountain: You wish. Actually, we think it means "Pre-Teen Love."
- Never Suicide: Sean didn't really kill himself.
- No-Tell Motel: Gladden briefly hides out at the Bon Soir motel, which offers $40/day rates and has three adult movie channels.
- Psychic-Assisted Suicide: Discussed, with hypnosis pursued as a possible factor in the cops' suicides.
- Rule34: Discussed Trope.“If there is one thing I know from this job it’s that there is an appetite and therefore a market for anything and everything,” Thorson said. “Your darkest thought is not unique. The worst thing you can possibly imagine, whatever it is, no matter how bad, there is a market for it.”
- Sequel Hook: Bob Backus escapes at the end. Sure enough, The Poet returns in Connelly's sequel, The Narrows.
- Serial Killer: The Poet targets homicide detectives.
- Someone to Remember Him By: After Sean is murdered, his wife discovers she is pregnant.
- Switching P.O.V.: The bulk of the story is Jack's first-person narration, while Gladden's story is told from a third-person POV.
- Tagalong Reporter: Jack. He gets to tag along because he was actually the first to uncover the serial killer, and the FBI allows him to follow the investigation in return for him delaying his story.
- Uncomfortable Elevator Moment: Jack's first meeting with Rachel Walling, before he knows who she is, is in an elevator."The woman had moved to the right side of the car and we had settled into the slightly uncomfortable silence that always comes when strangers are enclosed in an elevator.”