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Friday, August 5, 2011

The Fifth Witness. Michael Connelly. Orion Books (2011)


A sheep in wolf's skin, excellent writing, a great structure and an engaging cast cannot hide the fatal failure of imagination and nerve that compromise this story. Mickey Haller is a criminal defence lawyer finding that his business has changed due to the recession. He has many more clients fighting foreclosure that criminal indictments. When one of his foreclosure clients, Lisa Trammel is charged with murdering the CEO of the bank she is fighting against, Mickey finds himself returning to criminal defence. Facing off against a tough and very capable District Attorney, Mickey has a challenging case on his hands. The story develops extremely well, the courtroom scenes are gripping and the various trial strategies used by both sides are explained in a natural and engaging way. The corkscrew conclusion is a culmination of the fatal ambiguity in the story and leaves the reader shortchanged by the whole experience.
The positive aspects to this story are many and very strong. The context for the case, the ongoing whirlwind of foreclosures that resulted from the selling of wildly unsuitable mortgages to equally unsitable customers for overpriced properties is topical and very well drawn. The way that the defence strategy is developed and implemented, the need to manage a wayward client as well as deal with the prosecution is gripping done. The cast are given space and time to make an impression and the sheer struggle involved is conveyed expertly.
The problem is that Michael Connelly does not believe in defence lawyers as a component of the legal system. He can understand that they are required, he chokes on the fact that they are defending people who did commit the crimes they are accused of, he wants them to only really defend the innocent. Assertively defending the probably guilty, that is doing the actual job of a competent criminal defence lawyer, is just a step too far for him. He allows Mickey Haller be an effective defence lawyer, then weasels at a critical moment so he can square his troubled consciences in the most appalling manner, he also uses Mickey's divorced wife and daughter as cover for this piece of shabby action. This sad squeamishness robs an otherwise excellent thriller of its force. Worth reading for the set pieces, skip the rest.

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