Current reviews
  Reviews by title
  Reviews by author

  Contact Onyx

  Discussion forum


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 brokers.

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 presents 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 anything.

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 either way.

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.

Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent 2011. All rights reserved.