Jonathan Yardley on 'The Brass Verdict'
THE BRASS VERDICT
By Michael Connelly
Little, Brown. 422 pp. $26.99
Graham Greene liked to distinguish between his serious novels and those he called his "entertainments," though given the complexity of the man and his work it wasn't always easy for readers to draw the distinction. Probably Michael Connelly would be the last to compare himself with Greene, but he, too, writes at differing levels of seriousness. If at first encounter he seems primarily an exceptionally accomplished writer of crime novels, at closer examination he is also a mordant and knowing chronicler of the world in which crime takes place, i.e., our world.
Three years ago, within the space of only a few months, Connelly published two novels notable for the serious business underlying the entertainment. The first, The Closers, published in May 2005, found his noted Los Angeles police detective Harry Bosch trying to solve a "cold case" and thus trying to bring justice to victims on whom the law has turned its back. Then, in October of the same year, he published The Lincoln Lawyer, his first novel told from a lawyer's point of view, about an ambulance chaser named Mickey Haller, who, in the course of pursuing a lucrative case, finds himself seeking justice for a man he believes he failed to represent fairly when his case was being heard.
Now, in The Brass Verdict, Connelly brings Bosch and Haller together for the first time. Though the novel has some serious things to say about the workings, and occasional failures, of the jury system, it is primarily an entertainment, and more than welcome purely as such. It's narrated by Mickey, a criminal-defense lawyer who is just coming off a year's self-imposed sabbatical -- he'd been shot in the gut and then had become addicted to painkillers in various forms -- and plans to ease slowly back into his practice. He's no K Street lawyer, as he tells a young man he takes on as his driver:
"I haven't had an office since I left the Public Defenders Office twelve years ago. My car is my office. I've got two other Lincolns just like this one. I keep them in rotation. Each one's got a printer, a fax and I've got a wireless card in my computer. Anything I have to do in an office I can do back here while I'm on the road to the next place. There are more than forty courthouses spread across L.A. County. Being mobile is the best way to do business."
Mickey's hopes of easing back in are quickly deep-sixed when a lawyer he's known slightly, Jerry Vincent, is found murdered in his car. He and Vincent had worked the occasional case together but hadn't been close. Still, Mickey is called into the office of the chief judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court and informed that Vincent "filed a motion with the court ten years ago that allowed for the transfer of his practice to you should he become incapacitated or deceased."
Most of the 31 active cases in Vincent's file are minor stuff, but one is huge: "Walter Elliot . . . was the chairman/owner of Archway Pictures and a very powerful man in Hollywood. He had been charged with murdering his wife and her lover in a fit of rage after discovering them together in a Malibu beach house. The case had all sorts of connections to sex and celebrity and was drawing wide media attention. It had been a publicity machine for Vincent and now it would go up for grabs." Obviously, Mickey would love to have the case, but first he has to persuade Elliot -- who most emphatically is not a nice man -- to take him on. Once he does, Mickey is off and running.
One of the people he runs into is Bosch, who is back on the active force and investigating Vincent's murder. Bosch wants access to Vincent's past and present case files because he believes the murderer was a client who'd crossed swords with him, but Mickey refuses on the grounds that to release the information would violate lawyer/client confidentiality. Bosch has 33 years on the force and is "a man on a mission" to seek justice wherever he can find it. He's a tough cop and an honest one, and there are angry sparks between him and Mickey from the moment they first meet.
Mickey would just as soon have nothing to do with Harry -- Connelly's faithful readers don't have to be told that his real name is Hieronymus, "like the painter" -- but there's a problem: The deeper both men dig into Vincent's past, the more suspicions are raised. Vincent had received a lot of money, presumably from Elliot, and much of it -- $100,000, to be precise -- had disappeared. Mickey says Vincent claimed that "he needed the money to buy a boat and that if he made the deal in cash, he would get the best deal and save a lot of money," to which Harry replies: "There is no boat. The story was a lie." Vincent "bought something," Harry says, "and your client Walter Elliot probably knows what it was" -- something, for starters, like a potential juror.
"You should take it as a warning, Counselor," Harry continues. When Mickey scoffs, he says, "His lawyer got killed, not him. Think about it. And remember, that little trickle on the back of your neck and running down your spine? That's the feeling you get when you know you have to look over your shoulder. When you know you're in danger." Mickey doesn't want to be scared, but as things unfold it appears he doesn't have much choice. One of those things is, how much -- if at all -- can he trust his client? Walter Elliot loudly and frequently proclaims his innocence and insists he wants a speedy trial to clear his name as rapidly as possibly, but though Mickey wants to believe him, experience teaches him to be cautious:
"Over the years I had represented and been in the company of a couple dozen killers. The one rule is that there are no rules. They come in all sizes and shapes, rich and poor, humble and arrogant, regretful and cold to the bone. The percentages told me that it was most likely Elliot was a killer. That he had calmly dispatched his wife and her lover and arrogantly thought he could and would get away with it. But there was nothing about him on first meeting that told me one way or the other for sure. And that's the way it always was."
If you're beginning to get a whiff of the O.J. Simpson case, well, that's pretty obviously how Connelly planned it. Not merely is the accused murderer a Los Angeles celebrity and the victims his wife and her lover, but Connelly drops in the occasional teasing reference as well. When Elliot blusters in court that "the sooner Mr. Haller gets to prove my innocence to the world, the better," Mickey dismisses it as "O.J. 101," and when another lawyer offers to pitch in and help, Mickey tells him: "He wants only one lawyer at the table. . . . He said no dream team." But all of that is just a little juice on the side; the main story is strictly Connelly's.
The essence of it is this, as Mickey puts it: "I was defending a man I believed was innocent of the murders he was charged with but complicit in the reason they had occurred. I had a sleeper on the jury whose placement was directly related to the murder of my predecessor. And I had a detective watching over me whom I was holding back on and couldn't be sure was considering my safety ahead of his own desire to break open the case." Yet how does Mickey feel? "I felt like a guy flipping a three-hundred-pound sled in midair. It might not be a sport but it was dangerous as hell and it did what I hadn't been able to do in more than a year's time. It shook off the rust and put the charge back in my blood." Mickey is pumped, and, take my word for it, you will be too. Even though the way it ends is just a wee bit contrived, it's still a terrific ride. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.