The Lincoln Lawyer
Back in high school, when I worked at the local public library, the head librarian told me that the most popular category in the place was mysteries. People, I was told, tended to read through everything by a mystery writer they liked. Consequently you found yourself shelving lots of books by certain authors.
The detective story was arguably invented by Edgar Allen Poe. But the modern form was established by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. All the elements came together there–the smarter-than-the average-bear detective; the clueless sidekick who is the stand-in for the reader and is the reason to explain things that otherwise happen inside one man’s head; and the nemesis who drives the hero to superhuman feats of ratiocination.
And yet Conan Doyle may be the last mystery writer to end up hating his meal ticket. From a purely commercial perspective Agatha Christie provides a better model for today’s crime scrivener. A couple of heroes to rotate between. Prodigious output (unless you have a better way of describing 66 novels). Film adaptations of many of her books. As a generator of cash (as opposed to an artist of great importance) Christie has no match.
That doesn’t keep folks from trying. Nowadays you can find more than a few writers deploying a stable of regular characters to solve crimes, often with a geographic hook. For New Yorkers, Lawrence Block offers the hard-boiled Matt Scudder and the light-hearted Bernie Rhodenbarr. All of France is open to Michael Bond‘s former member of the Sûreté turned restaurant rater, Aristide Pamplemousse. And LA, the original home of noir heroes like Philip Marlowe, shelters the Michael Connelly gang. This Christmastide I again dipped into Mr. Connelly’s ouevre.
For those not in the know, Connelly is a former crime beat reporter turned mystery scribe. He has a couple of heroes with whom I’m well acquainted and a new one I just met. The ones I know have even stumbled into each other because both have a law enforcement connection. Terry McCaleb is a former FBI profiler on the surviving side of a heart transplant. The working detective he’s helped out is the deliciously named Hieronymous Bosch who goes by Harry. You would think a couple like that could keep a guy who does procedurals pretty busy.
Yet it turns out there’s a third member of Connelly’s stable who is a defense lawyer rather than a cop. Mickey Haller, making his debut in this novel, represents the guys on the wrong side of the crime and presents a unique twist on the character who can’t stand still. In an LA twist on peripatetic Haller works out of the back seat of a Lincoln Town Car driven by an iPod-wearing former client who couldn’t pay his bill. His two ex-wives are still in his life: one runs his back office and the other is a prosecutor whose path he crosses. He seems to talk to both daily although he only has children with the DA.
In this particular book Haller finds himself gleefully taking on a ‘franchise’ client. In this context that’s inside-speak for a client with a lengthy case and the means to pay list price for an involved, time-consuming defense. Whatever else Haller might be, like all attorneys he’s a clock watcher. That’s the only way to make money and Haller, a bit overextended in the mortgage department, relishes a healthy payday.
At least that’s how it starts out. But there isn’t much of a story if all you have is a crime, a defendant and a trial. That’s Perry Mason territory and then only if you introduce some uncertainty about the outcome. Connelly has a different course in mind for Haller.
In fact, Haller finds himself in the middle of a mess, a place he never wants to be. Like almost all fictional defense attorneys, Haller waxes poetic about his duty to the system and the rights of the accused. But he’d much rather not get too close to the details of his client’s alleged crimes. He’s happier playing his role and if there’s healthy remuneration involved so much the better.
To go into too much more detail would be to spoil the fun of this book. The simple thing to say is that Haller finds himself with the client from hell. And the payday may not be worth all the trouble along the way. There are just enough twists to keep you hooked without tipping into the land of too much contrivance. If Haller isn’t exactly the most noble hero you’ve ver encountered, he at least shares the required streak of I-have-to-do-the-right-thing with others you’ve met.
Like other Connelly books, this one was made into a movie, in this instance starring Matthew McConaughey. As a kid I was often disappointed in film versions of what I read. I haven’t seen this one but Haller, in my mind, looked nothing like McConaughey and maybe more closely resembled Jon Lovitz or Harvey Pitt. I know that’s not a way to sell tickets but it probably explains why I’d rather read a thriller than watch the movie of it.
If you’re similarly inclined, I could offer worse advice than to try a Connelly.