THE FIFTH WITNESS by Michael Connelly is properly put in the Lincoln Lawyer concordance --- Harry Bosch makes an appearance, but don't blink or you'll miss it --- probably scheduled to coincide with the release of the film version of the introductory book. It is a "courtroom" or "legal" thriller by any definition, going from the client's arrest to trial preparation, trial and denouement. If one wants an unvarnished look into the professional life of a criminal trial attorney, this is it.
It has been said elsewhere --- tongue in cheek, of course --- that the practice of law would be a great profession if not for the clients. While the majority of clients encountered in virtually every area of law are reasonable, one does --- as with any job --- deal with people who are difficult; indeed, Mickey Haller has his hands more than full with Lisa Trammel. Haller has recently changed direction and focus in his practice due to some simple economics. There are fewer criminal defendants with the ability to pay the fees he needs to earn a living; accordingly, he is involved with defending homeowners in foreclosure actions.
Things take a bit of a turn when Trammel, one of his new foreclosure clients, is accused of murder and requests --- nay, demands! --- that Haller defend her. Trammel is well known as an activist on the issue of homeowner foreclosures and illegal bank practices. The murder victim, a bank vice-president named Mitchell Bondurant, had attracted Trammel's ire to the extent that a restraining order had been issued against her, compelling her to stay away from Bondurant and his place of employment. Trammel loudly and repeatedly proclaims her innocence, but there is eyewitness and forensic evidence against her. Haller's efforts to defend her are complicated by her personality --- she knows just enough to get herself in trouble and to pour sand into Haller's defense tank --- and her relationship with a shady movie agent.
But when Haller is warned away from the case by a couple of thugs who administer a rather vicious beatdown, it simply makes him even more tenacious in his defense of the client. He needs every bit of his skills and talents, as well as those of his somewhat edgy support staff, to combat the ferocity of the district attorney prosecuting the case, a fireball against whom Haller has batted zero to date. As the proceedings seesaw back and forth, Haller deals with both professional and personal challenges that take him to the brink and beyond. Even after the trial has concluded, Haller is on the giving and receiving ends of a number of surprises, some of which undoubtedly will have ramifications in future installments of the series.
There are two extremely impressive elements in THE FIFTH WITNESS. The first is Connelly's effort to get the essence of criminal client representation correct, down to the last nuance. I have already mentioned the second --- the climactic series of surprises at the end of the book, which consist of a minor revelation and two major ones. Those who do not enjoy extended courtroom scenarios may find the going a little slow by the final third of the story (although one would expect a book about a lawyer to have a good deal of that) but should hang in all the way to the end. Your patience will be rewarded, not only by the conclusion, but also by the sample of THE DROP, the new Harry Bosch novel to be published in November.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 25, 2011