Michael Connelly guilty (again) of courtroom cliffhanger

Book review: 'The Fifth Witness' by Michael Connelly. Little, Brown, $27.99.

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Thanks to a high-profile case and a client who has attracted the attention of a sleazy but rich film producer willing to pay his fees, Mickey Haller, known as the Lincoln Lawyer because he used to work out of his Town Car, can now afford a moderately luxurious office for himself and his small but faithful staff.

Haller's current specialty is defending indigent homeowners from illegal foreclosures by unscrupulous banks. Could there be a more timely topic?

It's no coincidence, of course, that this timely sequel was released as the film version of "The Lincoln Lawyer," Michael Connelly's successful 2005 courtroom thriller, opened in March nationwide. And like its predecessor, "The Fifth Witness" is a page turner.

Haller's client Lisa Trammel, who has defied the system and organized against the foreclosure agents, is accused of murder when the banker in charge of her loan is killed with a hammer.

Trammel has stalked and threatened the victim in the past, and although the bank has gotten an injunction against her, she has been seen walking suspiciously close to the bank premises. The police and prosecution, of course, pursue the case with tunnel vision, ignoring all other suspects and avenues of investigation.

Cliches include Haller's own character -- divorced (actually twice, here) but still in love with his first wife and guiltily trying to be a real father to his teenage daughter -- and a reformed alcoholic as well.

Haller may be a flawed, but while he uses the corruption of the American legal system to his clients' advantage, he still wants to make things right.

Trammel insists that she's innocent, but Haller doesn't want to know either way. For a lawyer that kind of knowledge can only confuse or complicate his defense. Rules of evidence, after all, have very little to do with the truth.

Haller tries to tame her wilder instincts, but his client is a loose cannon. He doesn't ever quite trust her, but gradually comes to believe that she was framed by organized crime involved with the foreclosure banks. Moreover, there's an educational aspect:

The author has Haller explain the foreclosure crisis to his daughter in a way that may clarify issues many readers don't understand.

There are two zinger plot twists near the end, one of them allowing a too-easy moral wrap-up, but more interesting are the insights Mr. Connelly gives us into the legal strategies of a complicated trial:

"There are 12 minds on the jury ... all marinated in different life experiences. You have to tell them all the same story. ... It's got to be a story that speaks to each of them."

Or that the prosecutor made "a smooth move, bringing out the deficiencies in her case before I did. It made it harder for the defense to make its case."

There are tart references to the movie business, the author laughing at himself. When a producer says to Haller, "I was thinking of going to Matthew McConaughey with this. But who do you think could play you?"

Haller answers, "You're looking at him."

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.


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