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Onyx reviews: The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly

Every now and then an established author tries something a little different. When these experiments succeed it comes as a pleasant surprise.

Michael Connelly is best known for his crime novels featuring either Detective Harry Bosch or FBI profiler Terry McCaleb. In The Lincoln Lawyer, Connelly detours into the realm of authors like Scott Turow and John Grisham: the legal thriller. His protagonist is Mickey Haller (Bosch’s half brother), a criminal defense attorney whose office is the back seat of a Lincoln Town Car. Haller defends prostitutes, killers, drug dealers and gangsters with equal aplomb. No client is too sleazy or too guilty. He subscribes to the theory that the worst client is an innocent one, because “if you mess up and he goes to prison, it'll scar you for life.”

Haller’s good at what he does, but he’s no Perry Mason. Negotiating the death penalty into a life sentence is a victory. He advertises in the yellow pages (“Reasonable doubt for a reasonable fee”) and on bus stop benches, and has a kickback deal with a bail bondsman who sends work his way. His primary criterion for accepting clients is their ability to pay. His driver is a former client working off his bill. When another falls behind Haller gets a continuance, telling the judge that he needs time to find a witness named “Mr. Green.”

He’s lost all respect for the legal system and believes that the law is not about the truth. “It was about negotiation, amelioration, manipulation.” Getting someone off on a technicality is as good as a not-guilty verdict in Haller’s world. He knows how the system works, where the cracks are, and how to widen them.

Still, he’s a likeable character; he simply has a fuzzy code of ethics. He does more pro bono work than the bar association requires and has a soft spot for a repeat client. Aware that lawyers are often disbarred for mishandling or misappropriating clients’ fees, he diligently receipts every cash payment he receives. While readers may not approve of how he conducts business, they will root for him to succeed.

Every so often, he seeks a “franchise case,“ one that will probably go to trial and generate at least a six-figure fee. He’s mortgaged to the hilt and needs regular infusions of cash to maintain his lifestyle. When the bail bondsman sends an affluent real estate agent his way-—Louis Roulet, accused of brutally attacking a woman in her apartment—-Haller sees his chance to replenish the coffers. He doesn’t particularly like his playboy client, but that’s never stopped him from taking a case before.

As Haller’s investigator digs deeper into the victim’s background—and that of Roulet—the case changes direction. At first it seems like he’s uncovered sufficient proof to have the charges dismissed, which would ruin the franchise. By the time Haller suspects that something sinister is happening beneath the surface and finally realizes the full implications of the case, his career—and perhaps his life—is at risk.

The Lincoln Lawyer works on several levels. It is a very capable legal thriller. The trial—and the legwork leading up to it—is crisp, realistic and engaging. When several forces converge on Haller, the book becomes a pulse-pounding suspense thriller with a pace reminiscent of The Firm.

Finally, the book is an incisive character study. Haller radiates personality—-not all good or admirable, but entirely believable. He grew up without knowing his father, a famous lawyer who defended an equally famous gangster. He has no social life, a drinking problem and two ex-wives, one of whom is his personal assistant. He has an on-again/off-again relationship with his other ex-wife, a prosecuting attorney with whom he has a daughter.

He understands that his preferred clientele makes him anathema to prosecutors and the police who investigate the crimes of which his clients are accused. He shrugs off the joke comparing lawyers to bottom-feeding scumsuckers. A major part of the pleasure in this book is in learning who Mickey Haller is. How he defines where he stands in society and how he flirts with the lines that separate right from wrong, good from bad, and guilt from innocence.

A movie production company has already optioned The Lincoln Lawyer. Look for Haller and Harry Bosch to team up in future Connelly novels, as all of the author’s fictions take place in the same dirty streets of Los Angeles.

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