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BOOK REVIEW

Thriller delves into murky world behind foreclosure crisis

By Chuck Leddy
April 26, 2011

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The secret to thrill-master Michael Connelly’s huge success is simple. With 23 novels under his belt, several of them runaway bestsellers, the guy can flat-out tell a story. “The Fifth Witness,’’ Connelly’s latest, is a fast-moving, masterfully structured legal thriller that wades into today’s foreclosure crisis. Connolly’s narrative train chugs around countless corners and into dark valleys only to accelerate toward its final destination. Like all great mysteries, nothing is as it seems.

Mickey Haller, the protagonist of Connelly’s best-selling “The Lincoln Lawyer,’’ is back. Haller practices law in contemporary Los Angeles, a murky landscape of hidden motivations and barely submerged violence (one that Connelly’s literary hero, Raymond Chandler, would recognize instantly). Haller’s been around the block a few times and has the scars to prove it. With LA awash in home foreclosures, Haller decides to expand his practice into foreclosure defense. But he finds himself defending client Lisa Trammel for murder when the banker who was foreclosing on her home ends up dead.

Part of the pleasure of reading Connelly is in vicariously inhabiting the dark places where his plots take him. In “The Fifth Witness,’’ Connelly not only brings us deep inside a murder trial, showing us the rough-and-tumble tactics of an aggressive prosecutor and a grizzled defense lawyer, but also exposes us to the booming foreclosure industry, where banks operate on the borders of legality to protect their financial interests. “[D]uring my short time in this area of the law [foreclosures],’’ Haller explains, “I had seen enough predatory and unethical acts by so-called legitimate businessmen to make me miss good old-fashioned criminal law.’’

After banker Mitchell Bondurant is murdered in a parking lot, struck on the head with a hammer, Haller’s client is prosecuted. Haller admits that Trammel has a clear motive, believing “in her victimization at the hands of the bank’’ and even starting an activist group to bring grass-roots pressure against bankers like Bondurant. Haller knows the deck is stacked against him and Trammel, especially as witness testimony and forensic evidence connect his client to the murder scene, but he and his team search tirelessly for exculpatory evidence.

Haller and prosecutor Andrea Freeman are both more than willing to hit below the belt to gain an advantage inside or outside the courtroom. Much of the terrific drama that Connelly generates comes directly from courtroom sparring as Haller adapts his legal strategy to the evidence that emerges from the prosecution’s case.

Haller, for example, argues that the murdered Bondurant “had ten inches on his suspected killer and yet the impacts that punctured his skull and killed him were delivered to the crown of his head.’’ His diminutive client, he insists, could not have done it. Haller also develops an “alternate killer’’ theory intended to create a reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors.

To further thicken the plot, Hollywood producers are interested in buying film rights from Haller’s client. We get peeks into Haller’s messy private life, too. As the vultures circle, Haller rekindles his relationship with his ex-wife. While this may seem like too many moving parts, Connelly keeps his narrative machine running with impressive speed and smoothness. He builds suspense by interchanging his focus from courtroom legal drama to the intense, often-dangerous investigation to uncover the truth about Bondurant’s murder.

Connelly is a master at knowing when to shift focus. He knows when to put his foot on the gas and when to take it off. Once Connelly has you on board, turning the pages, you won’t want to climb off. As popular entertainment goes, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at chuckleddy@comcast.net.

THE FIFTH WITNESS By Michael Connelly

Little, Brown, 448 pp., $27.99