Book review: The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly

(Orion 2011)
Michael Connelly’s books are invariably a treat, and The Fifth Witness is no exception. If you enjoy “court case” legal dramas, I bet you won’t read a better one this year (or any time soon).

Michael (Mickey) Haller, known as “the Lincoln Lawyer” and a recurring character, is struggling in recession-hit California to find the kind of clients that he, a bottom-dweller with a slight conscience, specialises in. He’s therefore changed direction somewhat, in a topical move, to join the mortgage repossession market. As is well-known, a current scandal in the USA is the bundling and reselling of mortgage loans by the original lender to third parties, often in a less-than-legal manner, causing grief to the home-owners, many of whom should never have received the loan in the first place under their circumstances, and even more of whom are finding themselves jobless or otherwise unable to pay back the shark-like creditors. Cue lawyers like Mickey, who take on these people as clients, charging less than the repayments in order to pick holes in the contract-transfer documents and delay the inevitable for as long as possible.

This is the background of The Fifth Witness, in which one of Mickey’s defaulting clients, Lisa Trammel, is accused of murdering a banker at the firm that is enforcing her mortgage foreclosure. Lisa is an unlikeable woman: her husband has left her, she has a young son, and has recently lost her job as a schoolteacher. She spends her time loudly protesting her situation, setting up online and real-world protest groups, eventually causing the bank to take out an injunction to prevent her entering its premises. When one of the senior partners is found murdered in the parking garage, Lisa is an obvious suspect, not least as a witness puts her in the area at the time of the death.

The main part of the novel describes Lisa’s trial, Mickey’s defence strategy, and his gradual uncovering of what really happened on the morning in question. Hollywood low-life, mobsters and biker gangs all feature as part of a tightly convoluted plot in which revelations occur as the trial progresses and the tension builds up. On the personal side, Mickey is as usual torn between his need to earn a living and his love for his ex-wife, prosecutor Maggie “McFierce”, and their teenage daughter. His small set of associates are also to the fore, all contributing their unique talents to what seems at first to be a hopeless case for the defence.

The Fifth Witness is, simply, a solid, exciting story which delivers – a traditional tale with plenty of modern twists. As noted at the start of this review, Michael Connelly is an author of predictably high-quality novels, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one. His Mickey Haller novels are told in the first person, so the reader is more privy to his internal doubts and insecurities than in the (longer-standing) Harry Bosch series, which is told in the third person. Neither character is very likeable, though both are presented with sympathy. I’m glad to see from the end of The Fifth Witness that Bosch will be returning in a new novel, The Drop, in October.

I purchased my hardback copy of this novel. Read more about it at the author’s website – including an iPhone app, a Q/A with the author, a sample chapter, and more.

Excerpts from many positive reviews of the novel. Read other reviews of The Fifth Witness at: WSJ.com, the Express, and Reviewing the Evidence. (I have not linked to some newspaper reviews because of their shocking web displays, which intersperse the review with multiple page-breaks and advertisements.)

15 thoughts on “Book review: The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly

  1. Maxine I’m glad to hear Michael Connelly is in great shape and this one, one of Mickey Haller’s best. I’m looking forward to read it but still have TBR The Reversal first. Nice to hear about Bosch as well. And thanks for your excellent review.

  2. Maxine – What an enjoyable experience a Michael Connelly is🙂. I’m so glad this is no exception. Thanks for this excellent review, too. This particular plot strikes close to home for me because I know several people who have been caught in this terrible web. It’s really a sad situation. I’m eagerly waiting my turn at the library for this book; thanks for whetting my appetite🙂.

  3. Thanks, Jose Ignacio and Margot. Connelly is very good in the way he mixes the sold, dependable novel with highly topical concerns, such as here and in The Reversal, which I hope you enjoy as much as I did, Jose Ignacio!

  4. The plot sounds like the kind of change that Connelly said he would implement in his books after reading and being inspired by authors like Jo Nesbo who incorporate /utilize social strife as the catalyst for trouble/conflict/murder, what have you. I bought it after all the fuss I made about the price of it. I love Connelly but I despise legal dramas BUT BUT BUT… I don’t mind reading his legal dramas because it’s much more than a legal drama (in my head this is what I tell myself). Thanks Maxine ( my wallet says otherwise.)

  5. Thanks, Keishon – Connelly has never shied from social/political issues, eg he was the first fiction author I read who criticised the Homeland Security Act’s fallout after 9/11; several novels at that time were about those themes. Another recent one was about online predators. But maybe he meant he’ll do more of it now – previous novels were about Harry Bosch (or other, eg Jack McEvoy) investigating such practices, maybe he means that he’ll now have his characters more directly involved in them. I have to say that Jo Nesbo would not be the first author who leapt to my mind as an eg of a crime-fiction author who uses social strife in his plots – I’d say he is more of a straight thriller author (apart from perhaps The Redeemer of his recent books). There are other authors who deal more square-on with socio/political issues eg Liza Marklund, Andrea Camilleri, Donna Leon, Henning Mankell et al. Good authors all (including Nesbo).

  6. I don´t intend to try to catch up as I have only read two or three volumes of the series, but I must admit that 9 Dragons was an admirable thriller so perhaps I should just follow it from now on (or whenever I need another book).

  7. You could certainly read this one without having read his previous books, Dorte, it is pretty self-contained. Bosch (the protag in 9 Dragons) only makes a very fleeting appearance in this book.

    There have not been many Mickey Haller novels- the first was The Lincoln Lawyer, then The Brass Verdict, The Reversal, and now this one. (Harry B is more of a presence in the previous three.)

  8. Glad to hear this is another good one from Michael Connelly. I’ve enjoyed his legal thrillers with Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch. The Lincoln Lawyer is one the best legal thrillers ever written, in my opinion.
    I agree with your list of crime fiction writers who delve into social issues, and would add Sara Paretsky to the list, as well as the “parents” of Swedish crime fiction — Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Also, to a lesser degree, but still, Gianrico Carofiglio.

  9. Like Dorte I have no intention of trying to catch up with all the Connelly I have missed, though I am looking out for them in audio format It’s not that easy to find audio books I want to listen to (of course everything JP ever pens is immediately available in that format but who wants to listen to that?) as they tend to only record more mainstream/popular titles and any that are recorded are geo restricted like eBooks but the Connelly ones do eventually become available to us down here so I’ve got my eyes peeled.

    Glad you enjoyed the book – so nice when a favourite author delivers🙂

  10. For some reason legal thrillers have never been as appealing to me as other mysteries (maybe too much of the stuff on American TV already?), but it sounds like Connelly is worth reading in any case. I’ll have to watch for this one.

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