December 1, 2013
At the start of Michael Connelly’s terrific new Lincoln Lawyer novel, Mickey Haller is way, way down in the dumps. A year earlier, he had blown a winnable race for district attorney amid “scandal and self-destruction.” He had used a legal technicality to win an acquittal for a lowlife client charged with drunken driving, whereupon the client promptly repeated the crime, this time killing a woman and her daughter. The resulting publicity doomed Mickey’s political ambitions. Moreover, the dead girl had been a classmate of his 16-year-old daughter, who no longer speaks to him. In “The Gods of Guilt,” we find him drinking too much, consumed with guilt and reduced to parking on a hillside overlooking his daughter’s school to watch her at soccer practice.
Suddenly, things look up! He’s hired to defend an accused murderer, one of those golden clients who can pay $50,000 upfront. The man is charged with murdering a high-priced prostitute whose Web sites he oversaw and whose assignations he managed online; a “digital pimp,” Mickey calls him. The dead prostitute, Gloria Dayton, appeared in the first Lincoln Lawyer novel — so-called because Mickey, rather than maintain a conventional office, works in the back seat of his Lincoln Town Car while his driver navigates between the courts and jails of Los Angeles.
In the earlier book, Mickey represented Gloria on a cocaine charge and arranged for her to avoid jail by giving the DEA the whereabouts of a customer of hers who belonged to a Mexican drug cartel. Now, the jailed drug dealer is trying to win his freedom by proving that the DEA planted a gun in his room.
Mickey comes to believe that his client is innocent and that Gloria was killed because she knew too much. That awareness puts Mickey in peril. It’s an intricate plot, beautifully crafted, and it provides many surprises when Mickey’s client finally goes before a jury — the 12 women and men whom Mickey calls “the gods of guilt.”
It has been fascinating to watch Connelly develop Mickey over five novels. We see new sides of him in this one, as he agonizes over his hostile daughter, grieves for the death of a close associate and falls in love with an intelligent and attractive woman who owns a yoga center and, in an earlier life, was a top-dollar prostitute.
I used to think of Mickey as a somewhat shady, somewhat comic character, and certainly those elements are part of his persona. (In my mind’s eye, the Mickey of the books is a good deal less glamorous and more rumpled than Matthew McConaughey, who played him in the movie version of “The Lincoln Lawyer.”) But it’s increasingly clear that Connelly is presenting Mickey, for all his antics, as a crusading idealist, a man with a mission, much like his half-brother Harry Bosch, although as a police detective Harry works the other side of the street.
Mickey believes that the law is stacked against his clients, that the police and prosecutors have far greater resources, that most judges are “fronts for the state” and that the supposed presumption of innocence is a joke. Facing such odds, he clings to the belief that “any ethical question or gray area could be overcome by the knowledge that it is the sworn duty of the defense attorney to present the best defense of his client.” The law is malleable, he believes, and a smart lawyer bends it to his clients’ advantage. But bends it how far? In this book, Mickey pulls a courtroom deception that, if he gets caught, will lead to his disbarment.
It’s remarkable that Connelly, after creating perhaps the finest American police series, could, in 2005 at age 49, abruptly shift gears and launch an equally excellent and arguably more entertaining series about a criminal defense lawyer. But in certain ways, Bosch and Haller are not so different. In most of Connelly’s 26 novels, whether Bosch or Haller is his protagonist, the villain ultimately proves to be not some garden-variety criminal but a corrupt official — a politician, judge or someone with the LAPD, the FBI, the DEA or Homeland Security. Connelly was a prize-winning police reporter before he turned to fiction, and he has no illusions about the dark side of law enforcement.
Both Bosch and Haller rank among the great characters in American crime fiction, along with Sam Spade, Travis McGee, Steve Carella, V.I. Warshawski, Dave Robicheaux, Edward X. Delaney and a handful of others. Thanks to Mickey’s complexities, the Lincoln Lawyer series keeps getting better. I think this is the best one yet, but admittedly, I’ve thought that about them all.
Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers regularly for Book World.