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The (Not Quite) Lost Art of Crime Writing: Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer

Book #16 for 2011: The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly

When I was in my 20s, I followed the work of several crime and mystery writers. Not just the classic hardboiled writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and drawing room mystery writers like Agatha Christie, but several modern (for that period) authors: Ross MacDonald, whose Lew Archer mysteries always started with the eponymous detective being hired to track down a runaway child or bride but ended with the discovery of the dark and tragic secret history of some Southern California family; Ed McBain, whose 87th Precinct procedurals were so breezy and compulsively readable that I’d sometimes go through two or three in a day; and Donald Westlake, whose Dortmunder series was a bit too repetitive for my tastes but whose standalone crime novels combined a darkly comic sensibility with a gift for Hitchcockian chase thrillers.

And then I sort of lost interest, both in reading novels in general and in reading mysteries in particular. By the 1990s I was seeing the names of new crime fiction writers appear regularly on the bestseller shelf at my local drugstore, names like Harlan Coben, Lee Child, John Sandford, George Pelecanos, James Patterson…and Michael Connelly. When I would grow curious about one of these authors and sample their work, I was usually disappointed. Much of what they produced seemed slight and superficial, or just a bit trite, compared to the mysteries I’d read when I was young. (See my earlier nasty comments about the novels of Lee Child.) But I figured that, somewhere among them, there must be one or two authors who actually knew how to write decent crime fiction.

Michael Connelly came highly recommended. Stephen King, an author I respect, seems to tout Connelly’s work every chance he gets. Amy’s brother has an entire shelf of autographed books by Connelly. And The Lincoln Lawyer was made into a fairly well received movie earlier this year. So I decided to give him a chance.

And what do you know? He’s not bad. The Lincoln Lawyer certainly towers above anything I’ve read by Lee Child and I found it meatier than the Carl Hiaasen novel I read earlier this year. It’s not perfect. The characters tend toward stock figures, albeit fairly well-drawn stock figures, but the novel has three things about it that work very much in its favor.

The first is that Connelly clearly knows a great deal about how the law works, and not just the textbook way in which the justice system is supposed to function, but the way it functions in practice, with lawyers making shady deals and pulling the wool over their client’s eyes with legalistic sleight of hand. Judging from the acknowledgments at the end, this isn’t because Connelly has any law experience of his own but because he interviewed a lot of lawyers and even, yes, judges before he wrote this book. (It’s also possible that Connelly is very good at making up the kind of things that people are talking about when they say “you can’t make that stuff up.”)

The second is that he has a very good plot twist that goes off almost exactly in the middle of the novel, one that completely turns the story around and lets the reader know that the story they thought they were going to read is quite the opposite of the story they’re actually going to get.

The third is the main character, Mickey Haller, who narrates the novel in the first person. This was the first in a series of novels that Connelly has been writing about Haller, a sleazebag criminal lawyer who discovers belatedly that he has a conscience. It’s Haller who tells the reader about all the shady tricks that lawyers play and Haller who rises above the stock character threshold. Not that some genre cliches don’t slip into Haller’s life. He has the requisite ex-wife who chides him about not spending enough time with his daughter, with the twist that the ex-wife is also a prosecutor who he sometimes faces off against in court.

The Lincoln Lawyer is a fast, entertaining read and if I were still in my 20s I’d probably decide that Connelly is the sort of writer I could read several books by in a day. But, seriously, who over the age of 30 has the time or the attention span for that kind of thing? I know I don’t.

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About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and two cats, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

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