Connelly's cop-lawyer combo needs balance

"The Reversal," by Michael Connelly. Little, Brown, $27.99.

You get two stories for the price of one in this new police/legal procedural. Michael Connelly has adapted a "Law and Order" TV show structure for a novel featuring characters central to his earlier work-- Los Angeles police detective Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch and his half-brother, Mickey Haller, the "Lincoln lawyer."

The novel opens with Haller, who calls himself the "defender of the damned," lunching with LA District Attorney Gabriel Williams, a man he trusts less than the convicted wife-killer he recently defended.

Williams wants to recruit Haller, a defense attorney famous for practicing from the backseat of his Lincoln, as a prosecutor in a high-profile case. Why, Haller asks, bring in a defense attorney with no experience as a prosecutor for a crucial and highly publicized case?

Despite these improbabilities, he agrees to take the offer as long as his ex-wife, Maggie McPherson, now a prosecutor in nearby Van Nuys, can be his co-counsel. How probable is that?

The case itself looks like a loser for the prosecution. Jason Jessup, a young driver who worked for a car-repossession company, was convicted 24 years ago in the killing of 12-year-old Melissa Landy.

That conviction was based on slim forensic evidence and a positive identification by the only eyewitness, Sarah Landy, Melissa's older sister. It was thrown out by the state Supreme Court after DNA analysis cleared Jessup.

To make matters worse for the prosecution, Sarah Landy had disappeared.

The court ordered that Jessup, now a minor media celebrity, had to be retried or freed within 60 days. If he was found innocent at a retrial, he could win a lucrative lawsuit against the county and destroy the political ambitions of the district attorney.

Mr. Connelly adds yet another improbability to the plot when Haller agrees to the defense's request for bail, giving Jessup, a convicted murderer, his freedom until the end of the new trial. The defense is convinced that all it needs for acquittal along with the new DNA evidence is to raise doubts about Sarah Landy's testimony.

The prosecution must find Sarah and dig up evidence on Jessup's past and his character that will bolster their case. Bosch and other cops maintain a secret surveillance on Jessup, who plays victim by day, but at night acts strangely and possibly dangerously.

The legal plot offers less suspense, yet is more interesting. Mr. Connelly gives a thoroughly convincing insider's view of the legal preparations, strategies and maneuverings (in and out of the courtroom) of both sides.

This is no subtle character study, however. The people change about as much as Southern California weather and it's clear, early on, who the good guys are.

The courtroom lends itself to the kind of melodrama Mr. Connelly writes. The strength of this book lies in the details of investigation and prosecution.

The problems, if there are problems, are with the improbabilities that make the action possible.

Michael Helfand teaches English at the University of Pittsburgh. First Published October 3, 2010 4:00 AM


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