It actually felt like summer the other day: a long, languid sort of day with sunshine, no place to go, and fields humming with life. After a winter in which we saw one outbuilding collapse and the roof on another begin to crumble, the day felt like a gift. So when evening came, I decided to celebrate. I picked up Michael Connelly’s.The Fifth Witness.
Connelly might be my favorite writer of crime fiction. Mickey Haller, the Lincoln lawyer, trolls the streets of Los Angeles doing what small-shop lawyers all do – praying for paying clients. That he usually practices out of the backseat of a Lincoln Continental inspires me with something like awe. Los Angeles is a very different place, apparently.
Almost no one writing about lawyers actually gets lawyering. John Grisham’s lawyers are all trapped in heart-pounding plots pitting good versus evil. There’s a pot of gold awaiting most of his heroes. At the other extreme, Scott Turow’s lawyers all went to Harvard, or should have: they are massive intellects with insight into the human condition and its ambiguity rivaling a moral philosopher’s. Turow’s characters agonize like children of the upper middle class. I enjoy the read, but Madame Bovary never cast a longing eye in my direction: I am cut of rough stuff.
So I return to Connelly, again and again.
This time Haller has struck rock bottom. He has "gone civil" after money in the criminal defense market all but dried up. Connelly must have good friends in the law’s trenches. We who live off the sorrow and panic of others have known for a while that the economy is still in the danger zone. To survive, Haller turns to foreclosure defense. Again, a direct strike into the very heart of our time’s darkness: there’s fraud in the bundling of mortgages, and those seeking to foreclose on ordinary people are as often as not coming to court with fraudulent paper. Haller knows this. He works the system to keep people in their homes. David has found another Goliath to pepper with motions and arguments.
I wondered whether Connelly would be able to see Haller through to a transition to civil work. It felt like an immanent storm, perhaps an approaching twister. The landscape was about to change, and I was uneasy. Oh, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of insolvency, deliver me from civil work, I pray.
And then a miracle. The deus ex machina, or some such, struck. A banker is killed in the parking lot of his bank, and an activist rallying homeowners against banks is the prime suspect. Haller is representing her on the foreclosure, so why not sign on for the murder charge, too?
The client is troubled, but, then, who wouldn’t be with a banker seeking to put you on the street. She insists she is innocent, and Haller is tempted to believe her. But how much should he know about the truth? "I had to be careful about soliciting information that would constrain me early in the case," Haller thinks. "I knew this was a contradiction. My mission was to know all I could and yet there were things I didn’t want to know right now. Sometimes knowing things limits you. Not knowing them gives you more latitude in crafting a defense." Connelly gets it, even if he has never stepped foot in a courtroom as more than a tourist.
But then the trial begins. There is powerful circumstantial evidence linking Haller’s client to the crime: a shoe seized from her home has a drop of the victim’s blood on it. A hammer missing from her tool shed is found near the crime scene, and it, too, has blood on it. She has motive. She was seen in the area of the murder just after the corpse was discovered.
I was feeling that vicelike grip that the presentation of evidence often yields. Yes, Haller’s client might be innocent, but the evidence, what to do about the evidence?
Because it is fiction, Haller won the case. And he did so by introducing what we call in Connecticut third-party culpability evidence, in other words, a suspicion that some other dude did the dirty deed. I read and tried to imagine slipping his evidence by someone like Pat Clifford or Susan Handy. It just wasn’t happening; the claim was too tenuous, too Oliver Stone-like. Connelly crafts an image of a tempestuous judge, hard as nails and willing to drop a contempt hammer, but somehow soft between the ears. Oh, the freedom of a novelist!
I still love Connelly, but I can’t rave over his latest – the courtroom, both judge and jury, are far too forgiving. Haller is the real deal, a down at the heels lawyers scrambling to make payroll in an economy where cash is scarce. He’s a pretty good trial lawyer, too. But the courtrooms he inhabits aren’t as cold as the ones I walk. Here’s a memo to Connelly: Give me a call. You’ve still just skimmed the surface of what happens at trial. There are depths yet to plumb. I can help.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.