Playing the Game

This is my review of The Fifth Witness (Mickey Haller Series) by Michael Connelly.

Although the courtroom drama is all too familiar a theme, Michael Connolly uses his legal knowledge as a former police reporter to great effect in this tense and compelling blow-by-blow, endlessly twisting account of a murder trial.

The underlying theme is very topical. His business hit by the "down economy", "Lincoln" lawyer Mickey Haller, so-called after the car he uses as an office, makes a good living by defending people obliged to foreclose on their mortgages in the aftermath of the collapsed housing boom. When one of his clients, the volatile Lisa, is charged with killing Bondurant, a senior official in the home loan company pursuing her, Haller steps in to take her case. I enjoyed the highly competitive, wily but basically decent lawyer's keen observation of others and his use of psychology to manipulate the police, prosecution, defendant,witnesses, colleagues and the judge alike, with varying degrees of success.

There is an interesting contrast between Haller's pragmatic approach, playing games and pushing rules to the limit in order to sow in the jurors' minds the seeds of doubt as to the defendant's innocence, and his inexperienced assistant's mixture of shock over his tactics, and concern that they might in fact be defending a guilty person. The continual sparring between Heller and the female prosecutor Freeman, together with the minefield of his exchanges with the judge, make for an absorbing drama. The book is more than a wisecracking thriller, but raises the moral dilemma of achieving "natural justice" and "the need to act fairly" versus the visceral desire for revenge, not to mention the pros and cons of the US plea bargaining system.

I was first drawn to Connolly's "Harry Bosch" detective thrillers by his striking descriptions of the American way of life and of the Los Angeles cityscape, sprawling into the desert, with the freeways, "All six lanes..clogged with metal, moving at a steady but slow pace. I wouldn't have it any other way. This was my city and this was the way it was supposed to run."

I like Connolly's careful plotting, in which every detail has significance, usually with a twist at the end, and the rounded development of the main characters. In "Nine Dragons", featuring Bosch (who turns out to be Haller's half-brother) I felt Connolly had run out of steam and descended to a mere pot-boiler, but this, the fourth in the Haller series, I believe, is back on form. Hard to fault, apart from the over-sentimental scenes with his idealised (but probably a bit of a pain) ex-wife Maggie and pampered daughter (at 14, shouldn't she be a babysitter rather than needing one?) plus one of the two last-minute twists seems a bit implausible.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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