Onyx reviews: The
Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly
In one of those self-referential scenes that so many authors seem incapable
of resisting, a shady producer vying for the movie rights to Mickey
Haller's current case says that he sees Matthew McConaughey playing Haller in the adaptation. It's an inside joke, since that actor is currently
starring in the movie version of The Lincoln
Lawyer, the first book to feature Haller. It's the closest thing to a false note in The Fifth Witness,
one of Connelly's best books in recent years.
Mickey Haller is the kind of lawyer who
advertises on city benches and in the yellow pages. Not really a bad guy, but not above playing the kinds of games that give his profession a bad name.
His new junior associate has difficulty accepting his tactics. She isn't so jaded
yet that she's willing to do absolutely anything in the
defense of a client.
Lately, Haller hasn't been getting many criminal cases. The decline in the
economy dried up his usual business. Never one to miss an opportunity, he
switched gears, took a course, and started representing people whose homes were
being foreclosed. He's good at what he does, finding loopholes and uncovering
unethical or downright fraudulent activity on the part of lending agencies and mortgage
One of his most problematic clients is a media-hungry woman named Lisa
Trammel, who has been spearheading protests against unfair lending practices
through an ad hoc group she calls Foreclosure Litigants Against Greed. She
exhausts Haller with her incessant calls for updates about her case. Her
demonstrations have become such a nuisance at the bank that holds her loan that
they took out a restraining
order against her and posted her picture throughout the building. When one of
the bank's senior vice-presidents is brutally murdered with a hammer in a
parking garage, Lisa's name is given to the police as part of their threat
assessment protocol. The fact that an employee reported seeing her on the block
at the time of the murder makes her the number one suspect.
It's a difficult case. The prosecutor makes Haller fight for every piece of
discovery. His client routinely ignores his requests that she not make any
public statements. She admitted being near the crime scene to the police
before she was arrested. The shady film producer insinuates
himself into the investigation, trying to broker deals that contravene the
contract Haller has with Lisa. Haller needs the front end of a film deal to
finance Lisa's defense because she has no money. Before the trial starts,
someone tries to scare Haller off by beating him severely. He suffers broken
ribs, broken fingers, facial lacerations, bruised kidneys and more.
The prosecution case is primarily circumstantial, which can be hard to
defend against. Haller comes up with an alternate theory of the crime that
doesn't have much foundation, but it's his only option. Then the prosecution evidence starts
getting less circumstantial and more damning, much of it arriving on the eve of
jury selection and even during the trial.
Connelly does a terrific job of laying out Haller's preparations and the
trial. In courtroom thrillers, authors often seem to create an
idealistic representation of a trial for maximum dramatic effect, but the way the prosecutor
her case in The Fifth Witness makes perfect sense. Haller likens the
process to Ravel's Bolero: starting out slow and building to a climax as the
number of instruments increases and the pace of the testimony becomes more rapid
and intense. Connelly's plotting is tight: the story needs the testimony to fit into a certain framework to
increase the tension and to allow for breaks when Haller and his team scramble to repair the damage of
damning testimony. He also cleverly discloses certain clues to the identity of
the killer. Once the truth is revealed, no one can accuse Connelly of hiding
It's Haller's job to disrupt the prosecutor's rhythm. He has an antagonistic
relationship with her, of course, but the two lawyers share moments of camaraderie
as well. Both of them ruffle the judge's feathers from time to time, though
Haller walks the narrower line. The dynamics in and out of the courtroom are
carefully drawn and totally credible. The lawyers each have successes and
setbacks. By the time it's Haller's turn to present his side, the case could go
Haller is an interesting, flawed character. He has two ex-wives, one of whom
still works for his law firm and the other, Maggie, is a prosecutor who he is
sort-of dating. He has a daughter with Maggie and he tries to
be a good dad—as much as his demanding job allows, at least. He generally works out of
the back seat of his car, but the high-profile case requires
more permanent quarters so, for the first time in years, Haller &
Associates acquires a physical address that isn't someone's living room. He's
determined and unwavering once he takes on a case. He doesn't care if Lisa is
guilty or not, and he doesn't want her to tell him because he doesn't want
anything to limit his defense. However, she proclaims her innocence to anyone
who will listen.
The book's title is baffling for much of the novel. There is only one
witness, and her testimony may not be entirely reliable. However, once Haller
starts presenting the defense by leading off with a surprise witness, readers
will probably start counting. What is the significance of the defense's fifth witness? The answer comes as a surprise as Haller tries a Hail Mary by
turning his hypothesis of innocence into the real thing.
Part of the fun of the Haller books is the supporting cast. His chief
investigator is a heavily tattooed former gang member who doesn't shy away from
bending or breaking laws to get the information his boss needs. Haller's only
request is that the investigator not reveal his tactics so that he has plausible
deniability. Haller's second ex-wife is as
confused about their relationship as he is, sending mixed messages. His
new apprentice acts as his conscience, but her confidence in her idealism
falters once she's exposed to the reality of a criminal trial. Haller's stalwart,
reliable driver proves that he's human, too.
Haller himself undergoes a significant change over the course of this
novel. The resolution of the Trammel case makes him wonder if his apprentice
doesn't have the right idea. Maybe there's something wrong with doing absolutely
anything in the name of defending a client. Connelly's next Haller novel should
be a real eye opener when he explores the new status quo for his Lincoln lawyer.
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