Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Brass Verdict

Michael Connelly, The Brass Verdict (New York: Little, Brown, 2008). 422 pp. $26.99.

Connelly’s second legal thriller opens with the liar’s paradox. “Everybody lies,” Mickey Haller begins the account of his return to criminal law, which he had temporarily shelved in The Lincoln Lawyer (2005). “Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The victims lie. A trial is a contest of lies.” The job of the defense attorney, he says, is “[t]o be the truth in a place where everybody lies.”

The trouble is that there is no obvious reason to trust the truth-telling claims of someone who glibly declares that “Everybody lies.” Connelly appears to be a stranger to the concept of the unreliable narrator. And this is the basic defect of The Brass Verdict. As in the earlier book about him, Haller is supposed to be the voice of integrity. In both novels, he manages to find a way around the legal and ethical obstacle of attorney-client privilege, and makes sure that the guilty party (his client) gets what is coming to him. That this has the opposite effect than Connelly intends—that Haller comes across as a man without principles—seems never to occur to him.

After a year’s absence, Haller is summoned back to the practice of law when another defense attorney is found murdered in a parking garage. The chief judge of Los Angeles Superior Court orders Haller to serve as replacement counsel for the dead lawyer’s clients. Among them is a “get-well client,” a high-profile defendant who pays enough to relieve the lawyer from having to scour up new cases to keep the money flowing. Walter Elliott is a movie producer accused of shooting his wife and her German lover.

Elliott accepts his replacement counsel—as long as Haller agrees to proceed immediately to trial with no more of the delays that Hamlet gave as a reason for suicide. Elliott is supremely confident of acquittal, and much of the novel is taken up with Haller’s efforts to discover why. When he does, the plot unravels. Elliott, guilty as sin, but not free as a bird, is shot down by the German lover’s brothers, who prefer the “brass verdict” of the title—a sentence wrapped in brass slugs—to the corruption of the American justice system. Haller is disgusted too, and vows to quit the practice of criminal law altogether.

The L.A. police detective investigating the death of Elliott’s first lawyer is Harry Bosch, hero of Connelly’s better-known series of police procedurals starting with The Black Echo (1992). Connelly fans will be tickled at the meeting of Bosch and Haller, but then confirmed followers of Moving On and All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers were equally thrilled to find out more about Danny Deck and Patsy Carpenter when they cracked open Terms of Endearment. Not many other readers treated Larry McMurtry’s 1975 novel as a mere sequel, however. The same here. Those who have never read the Bosch novels will wonder why Connelly bothered.

Little else distinguishes the novel. Connelly’s is a newspaper prose, intended to go down as painlessly as possible; it does not follow, however, that the writing is defined by concision. Perhaps the only information imparted by the novel, apart from the plot, is legal procedure. Connelly neatly describes a lawyer’s cash flow and court appearances, but does not use any of it. The plot unravels by other means than legal devices and maneuvers. Instead, Connelly’s prose seems designed not to confuse or distract from the subplots and counterplots that tangle and then untangle the main issue. As a consequence, the prose—along with much of the story—disappears from memory almost the instant that the book is set down.

In “The Simple Art of Murder,” his classic essay on the genre, Raymond Chandler wrote that the detective is a man who goes down mean streets but “who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. . . . He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.” Only such a man can gain a measure of redemption from what he must do in order to pursue justice.

In back-to-back novels now, Mickey Haller has felt himself to be dirtied by the practice of defending criminals. Twice now he has promised to give it up. No other redemption has been vouchsafed to him. A man of honor, though? Certainly: if he says so himself. But perhaps not so much—if asserting that everybody lies entails the acknowledgment that he himself must then lie too, and must seek something more than an all-knowing authorial approval to gain redemption.


Dani said...

I loved when Bosch turned up! You are right about Haller and the truth. It should be more complicated than that.

Anonymous said...

I liked the comment about the plot disappearing from memory. I usually read Connelly's novels as soon as published and quite enjoy the ins and outs and twists of the storyline and Bosch's integrity (though he would undoubtedly be intolerably narrow and self-righteous in real life), but I'll be damned if I can recall half the stories of any of the books. By contrast I read Silas Marner recently and can recall every vivid detail.