Michael Connelly never practiced law a day in his life, but his fiction best approximates the gritty reality of the private practice of law. His Mickey Haller series continues to amaze me. I repeatedly find myself underlining sentences in the book that capture exactly the sense of creative chaos and desperation that defines a criminal defense lawyer’s life. Even so, he takes great liberties with the law, and, were Haller to actually practice, he’d soon find himself in hot war with bar ethics cops.
The Gods of Guilt opens with an ethical ruse involving a fake blood capsule that is humorous and does serve to illustrate how far Haller will go to make just the right sort of record. But I found myself shaking my head; no lawyer would ever do that, I thought.
But Clarence Darrow did engage in just this sort of hijinks. His apparent bribery of jurors in the McNamara case involving the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building nearly got him imprisoned. And new evidence suggests Darrow may have manipulated an appellate court record on behalf of Italian anarchists in Milwaukee. Haller seems somehow untroubled by the ends used to obtain the results he seeks, just as Darrow did.
Or is he?
The Gods of Guilt is a double entendre: the term refers not just to the jurors evaluating the parties at trial, it refers also to the sources of conscience operating in each of us. We each serve, or seek to appease, our own gods.
I kept thinking of Scott Turow as I read Connelly. Turow, a lawyer, draws more complex characters in his legal fiction. I wonder what Turow would make of Haller? I wonder if Turow can conceive of a figure like Haller, a street lawyer living by hustling fees out of ordinary chaos?
Connelly’s latest book is, as are all his works, a fun read. His plot may not move at the break neck pace of a John Grisham novel, but it has enough twists, turns and surprises to keep you engaged and guessing to the end. Haller moves through the trial, and the plot, almost detached, an observer who struggles not so much with what the law is doing to him, as with what it, and he, can do to others.
Yet the topic of guilt emerges again and again. Haller has failed in love, and in fatherhood. He seeks redemption in the law. Yet the means he uses yields a subtler condemnation. At the end of the novel, Haller gets some small measure or peace, but no real insight into the bars of the cage he calls home. As in so many legal thrillers, he is saved from ruin by a big fee -- the too common deus ex machina of legal fiction..
I love Michael Connelly and I know Mickey Haller. But both still live charmed lives. The practice of criminal law is far more harrowing that Connelly reveals. I put down The Gods of Guilt with a sense of sorrow. I know Haller will be back in the next year or two. He’ll be broke again. He’ll still be fretting his failed marriages, and his tenuous relationship with his daughter. Then he’ll be retained by someone without enough money. He’ll struggle, almost fail, and then through cunning, improbably succeed, enjoying a windfall reward as he regroups between rounds.
Haller’s life is far easier than the lives of the lawyers I know. Realistic as Connelly’s portrayal of Haller can be, Connelly still sees the law through rose-tinted glasses. Perhaps he has to if his books are to sell. But I suspect Haller is aching to break out of the formulaic mold into which he has fallen. Perhaps he will emerge with more nuance in the next novel Connelly writes.
I’m a true fan, awaiting the next episode, and hoping for more.