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the reversal

9 october 2011

In The Reversal, "Lincoln Lawyer" criminal-defense attorney Mickey Haller goes over to the other side and becomes a special prosecutor in the retrial of a decades-old case. Haller has reminded me of Perry Mason, but I never knew Perry Mason to suddenly become a prosecutor. On the other hand, there are probably a hundred Perry Mason novels and I've read about six of them, so who knows what Perry might have gotten up to in the course of his career.

For those who hate spoilers: Spoilers follow.

With the help of Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly's long-established detective hero who is also somehow Haller's half-brother but isn't initially very clear about a lot of Haller's backstory (I've missed some entries in their confluent series), Haller takes on the prosecution of a child-murderer, imprisoned a quarter-century earlier and now freed from prison because DNA evidence suggests that the child's stepfather, not the jailed Jessup, was the perp. The DA, Haller, Bosch, and Haller's prosecutor ex-wife Maggie McPherson don't believe for a minute that Jessup is innocent, but they face an uphill battle to establish his guilt after 25 years have gone by.

The Reversal is a taut procedural with a lot of intriguing courtroom detail. It's told in alternating chapters: first-person from Haller's perspective, third-person from Bosch's. It'll keep you reading.

But The Reversal also marks an interesting departure from the formulaic course of the American courtroom story. Generations of fictions have featured crusading defense attorneys. Perry Mason is the archetype, and Matlock is his heir. Mason and Matlock always win, in melodramatic fashion; but their serious cultural representatives are Atticus Finch and Colonel Dax, going down fighting in the noblest of causes: defense of the unjustly accused.

Mickey Haller, though, made his debut in The Lincoln Lawyer by defending an evil client, guiltier than sin, and coming to feel terrible about his parasitic vocation. I missed The Brass Verdict (though I intend to read it soon), but in The Reversal, the third Haller novel, Mickey crosses over and prosecutes a man much guiltier than sin. This is really unlike Perry Mason.

Through both Haller novels that I've read runs a thread of exasperation with the whole tradition of criminal defense. The unspoken assumption is that the caught are the guilty, and that the only thing defending them does is get them off on technicalities. Even the title of the novel turns out to be a kind of bait-and-switch. Jessup is seeking a reversal of his conviction. Haller is trying to get him re-convicted. The logic of both the twisty legal thriller and the defense-attorney drama should mean that Haller, in a reversal of his usual role, should find himself doubly on the wrong side, forced to conclude that the guy he's prosecuting is really the innocent man.

But no; Jessup spends his time free on his own recognizance plotting more child murders and then actually killing four adults before the steely gunmen of the LAPD shoot him down. No plot twists; just a twist of the knife in the guts of a character summoned up for the sole purpose of being too bad to live. Meanwhile, he's been sprung from prison by bleeding-heart liberals, and can't buy a drink in bars frequented by impressionable softies. The whole package adds up to contempt for the accused.

Now, I'm sure there have been a few unjustly acquitted or unfairly exonerated criminals in the day, just as there have doubtless been innocent people imprisoned or even executed. The problem is not that The Reversal is impossible or even all that unrealistic; the problem is that it is insidiously tendentious. All fictions are tendentious, and non-fictions can surely be tendentious as well. One must merely note tendentiousness as it goes by, and not surrender to its unspoken warrants.

The personal stories of Haller and Bosch are much downplayed in The Reversal. That too is a bit of a disappointment; one of the better things about Connelly's crime novels is the full development of his heroes' characters.

There's still lots of testosterone to go around, though, and a fair helping of the laconic Harry Bosch.

"An important case, huh?" . . .

Bosch opened the door and got out.

"They all are," he said. (343)
In crime fiction, they ought to be.

Connelly, Michael. The Reversal. 2010. New York: Hachette, 2011.