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Seeking truth in this city of lies

The Brass Verdict A Novel Michael Connelly Little, Brown: 426 pp., $26.99

October 13, 2008|Richard Rayner | Special to The Times

"Idon't know where I will go or what cases will be mine," said Mickey Haller at the end of Michael Connelly's 2005 bestseller "The Lincoln Lawyer." Haller -- a defense attorney who worked Los Angeles County courthouses out of the back of three Lincoln Town Cars -- had solved the mystery and been gut-shot for his pains. "I just know I will be healed and ready to stand once again in the world without truth."

"The Lincoln Lawyer" was the first of Connelly's novels to feature Haller as protagonist. Now here's the second, "The Brass Verdict," with an opening that already feels classic. Here Haller shares his views on the rectitude of the justice system: "Everybody lies. Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The victims lie. A trial is a contest of lies. And everybody in the courtroom knows this. The judge knows this. Even the jury knows this. They come into the building knowing they will be lied to."

He's in recovery from addiction to the painkillers he started taking after his near-fatal wounding. He's sour, but trying to pick up the threads of his career when a colleague, an attorney named Jerry Vincent, gets whacked in a parking lot. This turns out to be a lucky break for Haller. He inherits Vincent's workload, which includes an upcoming trial involving a Hollywood producer who stands accused of murdering his wife and her lover. It's the kind of case that Los Angeles loves. Haller sees career-making potential.

That's the setup, established elegantly and without fuss. "The Brass Verdict" plays out around two story strands. The big-time producer, Walter Elliot, turns out to be a deceitful and unobliging client, constantly asserting his innocence while doing nothing to establish it. "It was O.J. 101," observes Haller.

The murder of Vincent, meanwhile, is investigated by LAPD detective Hieronymous "Harry" Bosch, Connelly's usual hero and one of the great figures in contemporary crime fiction. Attentive readers of "The Lincoln Lawyer" will have gleaned that there is a blood connection between Haller and Bosch, a theme that Connelly develops here, letting us observe the relentless and downbeat Bosch, usually seen in close-up, at more of a distance, through Haller's eyes.

It's a nice effect. The two men, so different, come to respect each other and become uncomfortable allies, eventually grabbing dinner together at Dan Tana's. "Bosch looked down at his steak, picked up his knife and fork and cut into it. I noticed he was left-handed. He put a chunk of meat into his mouth and stared at me while he ate it," Haller observes. "He rested his fists on either side of his plate, fork and knife in his grips, as if guarding the food from poachers."

Bosch is a wary shark, a man to be afraid of; Haller, more of an outsider, lives by his wits and by fine-tuning his brain to the dissonance of a corrupt system. Critics often compare Connelly with Raymond Chandler, a readily comprehensible bracketing -- Chandler was, and Connelly is, the signature Los Angeles crime writer of his era -- but one that, in a way, does neither of them great service.

Chandler was a prose-poet of place, a crafter of gorgeous sentences that indelibly evoked mood and locale. Connelly is interested in the machinations of the great bad city, the way power presses and plays out; he writes well, of course, but his grace notes are almost off-the-cuff -- "I stared out at the waves and thought about how beneath the beautiful surface a hidden power never stopped moving."

Chandler had no great command of plot; Connelly is a master of it, teasing out the lines of "The Brass Verdict" in a seemingly effortless way. Chandler was a romantic, Connelly is a realist who gains power through precision and restraint. Here Haller looks at the crime-scene photographs from Elliot's Malibu home: "The death room was completely white -- walls, carpet, furniture and bedding. Two naked bodies were sprawled on the bed and floor. Mitzi Elliot and Johan Rilz. The scene was red on white. Two large bullet holes in the man's chest. Two in the woman's chest and one in her forehead. He by the bedroom door. She on the bed. Red on white. It was not a clean scene. The wounds were large."

It's true, though, that Chandler influenced Connelly, and the theme of "The Brass Verdict" might have been taken from one of Chandler's more famous pronouncements: "Law is where you buy it." Here, as in "Lincoln Lawyer," Connelly sets out his narrative stall not as a hard-boiled police procedural, but as a legal thriller. The novel climaxes in court, where Connelly excels in getting at the all-important dance of jury selection and the mechanics of prosecution. "The lead investigator brings the hammer. He puts everything together for the jury, makes it clear and makes it sympathetic. The lead's job is to sell the case to the jury and like any exchange or transaction it is often just as much about the salesman as it is about the goods being sold. The best homicide men are the best salesmen."

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