To most of us, the foreclosure crisis seems like a slow-motion train wreck. Trust Michael Connelly to turn it into a speedy, can't-put-it-down crime novel. The Fifth Witness is Connelly's fourth novel about Mickey Haller, a.k.a. The Lincoln Lawyer (now in a theater near you), and in some ways this book could easily have been set in Florida.
After all, Connelly grew up in Florida and moved back here 10 years ago from Los Angeles, so he knows the territory. And Mickey's new legal specialty is, in Florida as in California, just about the only growth industry for lawyers these days: foreclosure defense.
But The Fifth Witness is, like most of Connelly's 22 other novels, an L.A. book, set in the kind of city where Mickey can operate his law practice out of his fleet of Lincoln Town Cars as a driver ferries him hither and yon among Los Angeles County's many courthouses.
And it's the kind of city where a criminal-defense lawyer needs a Hollywood agent — to negotiate book and movie deals based on his cases, of course.
Mickey needs that agent soon enough. As The Fifth Witness begins, he's working the grind of drumming up foreclosure clients through direct mail and ads in telephone books (the kind that place his face on the corner of every page). It's more nickel-and-dime than criminal-defense work, and he has traded up to a Town Car BPS — Ballistic Protection Series — because of the rough neighborhoods he's working in more often.
But Mickey, who does have a tendency to get shot or beaten up more often than the average lawyer, has to be enjoying the fact that in foreclosure law clients aren't violent. That is, until one of his foreclosure clients, a 35-year-old high school teacher named Lisa Trammel, is charged with murder.
Left with a young son and a $750,000 balloon mortgage when her car-salesman husband departed with no forwarding address, Lisa did more than hire Mickey to fight her foreclosure. She formed a consumer group called FLAG and led protests at WestLand, the bank that originated her mortgage. She's caused such a media ruckus that the bank has gotten a restraining order to keep her off the property.
After Mitchell Bondurant, senior vice president of the mortgage loan division at WestLand, is found in the bank's parking garage with his skull crushed, Lisa is arrested the same day, putting Mickey back in the criminal-defense business.
Lisa is not his favorite client. Demanding and temperamental, she craves publicity and disregards boundaries. But her case, Mickey knows, is a potential gold mine: "It put a blood-and-guts twist on the nationwide financial plague and that, in turn, packed the house." And not just in the courtroom — Mickey's entertaining visions of those book and movie deals even before the trial begins.
So is Lisa. She quickly acquires an adviser, the sketchy Herb Dahl, who professes to have his own Hollywood connections. When Lisa shows up for trial freshly coiffed and Botoxed, with Dahl in tow, Mickey knows he has to keep as close an eye on his client as he's keeping on the formidable prosecutor, Andrea Freeman. Freeman just happens to be a friend of Maggie McPherson, Mickey's first wife, mother of his 14-year-old daughter and object of his mostly unrequited affection. Small world.
Connelly's last book, The Reversal, brought together Mickey and another of the author's series characters, L.A. police detective Harry Bosch (who, in another small-world twist, is Mickey's half-brother). Alternating between Bosch's investigation of the case and Mickey's trial tactics, it ranged widely around the city.
Bosch makes a brief cameo in The Fifth Witness, but this is Mickey's book and centers on the courtroom. Connelly's breathtaking mastery of suspense continues to grow, and part of what makes it work so well in the Haller books is that he has perfected Mickey's voice: confident to the point of cockiness, yet always crafty. Don't be fooled by his first-person narration — even with the reader, Mickey holds his cards close to his chest, casually dropping some madly significant bit of information into a subordinate clause, or revealing a detail to us long after he's acquired it himself. The result is that, just like his adversaries, we're surprised by him — although, for the reader, that's a good thing.
Those surprises don't stop when the trial is over; they keep coming, faster and faster, until the very last page. You might want to save reading The Fifth Witness until you can carve out a good chunk of time — once you begin, you won't want to put it down.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.