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Book review: 'The Fifth Witness' by Michael Connelly

Crime, Law and JusticeCrimeHomicideBookJustice SystemMichael ConnellyThe Lincoln Lawyer (movie)

Michael Connelly's richly entertaining new novel, "The Fifth Witness," features defense attorney Mickey Haller, who operates out of the big armor-plated Lincoln he acquired from some lowlife in lieu of a fee and who seems, for the moment, to have replaced detective Harry Bosch as this immensely successful writer's go-to narrative guy. Haller (recently portrayed by Matthew McConaughey in the movie "The Lincoln Lawyer") has given Connelly's career an adrenaline boost (not that it really needed one) and introduced a rich, new narrative seam: the courtroom drama, a genre custom-made for Connelly's gifts of character observation and unobtrusive yet driving story development.

"The Fifth Witness" opens with Haller having it rough. "Criminal defense had virtually dried up in the down economy. Of course crime wasn't down. In Los Angeles, crime marched through any economy. But paying customers were few and far between. It seemed as though nobody had money to pay any lawyer," he tells us, explaining why — with his bills to pay, an estranged wife, and a 14-year-old daughter who fancies going to USC — he's been forced to mine one of the few growth industries in contemporary law: foreclosure defense. He's churning clients at "four or five grand a pop," helping people to hold onto their homes, at least for a little longer. One such small case blows up big, however, when Lisa Trammel, his very first foreclosure client, is charged with the murder of the banker who's trying to take away her home.

Tough client

Trammel is 35 and has lost her job as a teacher. Her husband, a onetime Calabasas BMW dealer, has skipped town, leaving her with a young son to raise and a massive mortgage she can't pay. That sweet middle-class dream has gone south, big time, and it sounds like poor Trammel needs our sympathy, right? That's what Haller thinks at first too, before she turns out to be needy, manipulative, determined and given to fits of wailing in his face. She's founded a protest group, Foreclosure Litigants Against Greed (FLAG for short), and its message is that "fighting foreclosure was as American as apple pie." She's been getting on TV a lot, even before the murder charge, and, by casting herself as the Erin Brockovich of a crippled economy, she uses the case to angle for book and movie deals. On the one hand, she's a victim, indignantly protesting her innocence and terrified of being in jail; on the other, she's a monster feminine ego straight out of James M. Cain, hell-bent on riding to wealth and her own 15 minutes.

Haller soon discovers that Mitchell Bondurant, the man Trammel is accused of killing, himself owed bundles of dough to an even more Darwinian foreclosure shark, a businessman with connections to organized crime. Readers get a glimpse into the murky economic machine that exists between the banks and the mugs whose homes are being taken away. This background provides "The Fifth Witness" with an urgent contemporary feel, while Haller gets beaten up and hospitalized, and then orchestrates some bopping himself, as the story builds.

Court mastery

About half the novel deals with the murder trial itself, and it's here that Connelly excels, easily surpassing even John Grisham in the building of courtroom suspense. It's clear that Connelly just loves this stuff. Haller, his cynical mouthpiece, understands that a trial is not a search for the truth but an implacable hunt for the win, and the plot's energy and surprise come from the disjunction between theoretical judicial ideals and the clunky, and therefore exploitable, reality of the legal process. The trial of Trammel turns into a chess match, with Haller adept at seeing the value of each piece. "Law is where you buy it," said Raymond Chandler, famously, to which Connelly adds his own gloss: The system is how you game it.

"In the courtroom there are three things for the lawyer to always consider: the knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns," Haller says, a formula that, besides former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, might have been cooked up by Wittgenstein, Bill Clinton or some other maestro of epistemological smoke and mirrors. Haller introduces his own "unknown unknowns," a line of behavior that comes with a price tag. "I wasn't sure integrity and me belonged in the same sentence," Haller tells us.

"The Fifth Witness" has a moral dimension, though Connelly lays it on with a light hand. He's in the entertainment business, and even his prose grace notes, of which there are plenty, are delivered as throwaways. "I had Rojas pick us up and we went down Van Nuys to the Hamlet near Ventura," Haller says, conjuring a moment, an image of living in L.A. that is both casual and indelible. The idea that Connelly is very good comes as no surprise, but the consistency of his excellence is remarkable, given that he's publishing two books a year right now. I picked up "The Fifth Witness" one night last week, intending just to get a feel for the story, and found I couldn't put it down until I'd finished it more than five hours later.

Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age."

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