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The Fifth Witness (A Lincoln Lawyer Novel, 4)
The Fifth Witness (A Lincoln Lawyer Novel, 4)
Michael Connelly
Little, Brown and Company, 2011
448 pp., 42.00

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LaVonne Neff

The Fifth Witness

The "Lincoln Lawyer" is back in the courtroom.

Six years have passed since attorney Mickey Haller, aka The Lincoln Lawyer, defended rich young Louis Roulet against murder charges. Haller has recovered from physical injuries sustained during that case and spent time in rehab shaking a painkiller addiction. Working with half-brother Detective Harry Bosch, he has defended a Hollywood producer (The Brass Verdict) and threatened to quit law altogether. Then, switching sides, he has prosecuted an accused child molester (The Reversal). He is brilliant at whatever he tries.

But Haller has hit hard times. The economic downturn has left criminal defense lawyers without clients: though crime still flourishes, criminals are short on cash. To survive, Haller is now fighting foreclosures. Individual payments are low, but an ad campaign has brought him lots of customers. The downside? The work isn't very challenging—until one of his clients, Lisa Trammel, is accused of murdering the banker who foreclosed on her house.

What a bonanza! Pushing past reporters from the New York Times, CNN, Dateline, Salon, and 60 Minutes, Haller realizes that in less than 24 hours he has "gone from scrounging $250-a-month foreclosure cases in South L.A. to being lead defense attorney on a case that threatened to be the signature story of this financial epoch." All he has to do is outfox an equally ambitious prosecutor, convince the jury that Trammel has been set up, and avoid falling victim to an organized crime family that isn't happy with his tactics.

If you're a Lincoln Lawyer fan—either the books or the movie starring Matthew McConaughey as Mickey Haller—you'll want to read The Fifth Witness to find out how Haller once again outwits all opposition. If you like courtroom drama, legal sparring, gamesmanship, and puzzles, Haller's tactics will certainly hold your attention. But if, like me, you're a longtime, die-hard Michael Connelly fan with a slight crush on Harry Bosch, you may be just a bit disappointed. The Fifth Witness has no chase scenes, no terrifying moments when the protagonist's life is in danger, no cliff-hangers, no murderous rampages. All killing, in fact, occurs offstage. What fun is that?

More serious-minded readers may point out that the book raises interesting ethical questions. Haller desperately wants to believe that guilt and innocence are irrelevant to his job. "Don't go growing a conscience on me," he repeatedly tells his young associate, who keeps trying to inject some idealism into their discussions. "I've been down that road. It doesn't lead you to anything good." Yet despite his protestations, Haller is obviously troubled by innocence. Can he recognize it when he sees it? And if he does, will it affect how he views his job—not only when he's defending the guilty, but also when he fails to protect the innocent?

"I'm beginning to think my client is innocent and that she was set up and that even with all of that I still might not be able to get her off," he confides to his ex-wife Maggie as they talk about why their dual-career marriage didn't work. "How would you like to bring that home with you?"

"If it bothers you so much," Maggie replies, "then maybe you should run for DA. The job's open, you know." (A prosecutor herself, Maggie does not explain how switching sides could ease Haller's worries. Apparently she doesn't worry about the possibility that if she wins a case, she might contribute to the conviction of an innocent person, or, if she loses, to the release of a guilty one.)

The frustrating thing about The Fifth Witness is that Haller has been mulling the same questions for at least six years with no apparent movement toward resolution. Guilt and innocence were major themes in The Lincoln Lawyer. Haller crossed the aisle in The Reversal when he acted as special prosecutor at the DA's request. At the end of that book, he was more than happy to return to criminal defense. But here he is again, still pretending that guilt and innocence are irrelevant to his job, still troubled by being unable to distinguish one from the other, still wondering if he should switch to defense, still occasionally sleeping with ex-wife, still unable to persuade her to come back. When is this guy going to get off the dime?

In Talking about Detective Fiction, P.D. James writes that classic examples of the genre confirm "our belief, despite some evidence to the contrary, that we live in a rational, comprehensible and moral universe." In addition, she told an interviewer, "there is a comfort in reading something with a puzzle at its heart which is solved by the end of the book, with order being restored." Legal thrillers, one would think, should do the same. But when Mickey Haller finishes a case, order is not necessarily restored. Though he occasionally seems to wish for a universe that's rational, comprehensible, and moral, his own world is just the opposite. Guilt and innocence are only marginally related to conviction and acquittal, cleverness matters more than conviction, and the game supersedes the truth. In Haller's world, nothing is firmly rooted—not even his office, the backseat of a Lincoln. And in the final analysis, there are no good guys.

Will Haller's legal cunning be enough to keep readers coming back for more, or will they tire of his cynicism? I'm glad that Connelly's next book, The Drop—slated for November—again features Harry Bosch. Unlike Haller, Bosch knows where he stands and what he must do; he is, as Connelly frequently observes, "a man on a mission." When Bosch takes a case, he is not playing games. He's making the world more rational, more comprehensible, more moral, and somehow more comforting.

Haller and Bosch have teamed up before. Maybe they'll do so again. Maybe Haller will eventually learn something from his big brother.

LaVonne Neff blogs at neffreview.blogspot.com and at livelydust.blogspot.com.

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