The Fifth Witness
By Michael Connelly
Little, Brown, 416 pages, $29.99
Readers who love a good down-and-dirty courtroom battle will love this superb new novel featuring Mickey Haller. Yes, that Haller, the one now on screen in The Lincoln Lawyer, starring a surprisingly good Matthew McConaughey,who sheds his rom-com cuteness for the patina of sleaze that makes Haller irresistible. And this sequel, which takes our man from the criminal courts to the civil, is even better than its predecessor.
The Great Recession has Haller and Associates' criminal defence business on the ropes. "Of course, crime wasn't down. In Los Angeles, crime marched on through any economy. But the paying customers were few and far between. It seemed as though nobody had money to pay a lawyer."
Resourceful as always, Haller does "the unthinkable." He retools for the civil court and the booming business of home foreclosure. It seems that poor people are happy to put his fees on a credit card ($1,000 down, $250 a month for a year) if he'll fight the banks for their homes. He's happy to settle for quantity in Los Angeles, the home-foreclosure capital of the United States.
It's that business that takes him back into the criminal courts. Lisa Trammel is a publicist's dream; a school teacher faced with foreclosure when her husband loses his job. She's hired Haller to fight the bank. Meanwhile, she's online and on TV, making herself the very public face of the foreclosure drama playing out across the country.
When the bank manager in charge of her file is murdered in the bank's parking garage, the cops only have one suspect. Lisa swears and vows she's innocent. Haller isn't making judgments. His job is defence and he's prepared to take her on, along with a share of the book and movie proceeds she's bound to generate. As the case moves on, he begins to think she just might be innocent. After all, in a lifetime of defending crooks, the odds are that one just might turn out to be clean.
Connelly uses the clever drama that is court procedure wonderfully to form the spine of the plot, as well as the action and suspense. It's the planning and acting that Haller loves, and Connelly builds on it, makes it sing. There is a smart and ambitious DA who likes to spring surprises and a steady judge who rules evenly. Haller's just-out-of-law-school associate finds herself a witness and a second chair on a murder case.
But there's more than just courtroom melodrama here. Connelly's portrayal of the insider world of banks and the foreclosure business is as seedy as it gets. Not for nothing does Haller muse that he "had seen enough predatory and unethical acts by so-called legitimate businessmen to make me miss good old-fashioned criminal law."
This being Michael Connelly, there are twists and turns galore and an ending that snaps, along with a twist in Haller's own life that no one will see coming. McConaughey will be terrific in this one, too.
Margaret C annon is The Globe and Mail's crime-fiction columnist
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