Sunday, August 21, 2011

Two for the Beach - Book Reviews - The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly and The Third Rail by Michael Harvey

(Blogger Note: These reviews were published in the August 2011 edition of LamLight, the physician newsletter for the Lynchburg Academy of Medicine)

     My definition of a good vacation read includes the following:  First and foremost, the book should be entertaining.  There should be a believable plot, hopefully with a wicked twist at the end.  The characters should be interesting.  The book should last long enough to make it worth the effort, but it should be able to be consumed in several generous helpings (like two or three afternoons under a beach umbrella).  If there is good writing which makes all of this happen, all the better.  Here are two which I think fit my definition quite well.

The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly

     The  Fifth Witness is the fourth installment of Michael Connelly's series about Michael "Mickey" Haller, first introduced in The Lincoln Lawyer.  If you've read that book (or seen the movie, which is terrific, by the way) you know Mickey is a bottom feeder.  His clients include bikers, gang members and other assorted low-lifes. Mickey has used the home foreclosure crisis in California to enhance his practice.  He has taken out ads all over town, including on the sides of buses.  His business is booming.  He feels like a knight in shining armor for once, defending the common man against the greedy bankers and mortgage brokers.  One of Michael's clients is a diminutive single Mom named Lisa Trammel who has used social media to organize other foreclosure victims.  She stages protests outside of banks and has become such a nuisance that her own bank has taken out a restraining order, keeping her away from their properties.  When Lisa's mortgage banker is murdered in the bank's parking deck, she becomes the prime suspect.  The police investigation quickly zeros in on Lisa, she is arrested for first degree murder and Mickey suddenly becomes a defense attorney once again.

     The evidence against Lisa, although mostly circumstantial, is quite convincing.  Mickey builds a defense around discrediting the state's evidence and postulating a different killer.  Michael's new investigator (his first one was killed in The Lincoln Lawyer) digs into the victim's life and finds that he was heavily in debt himself.  The baner had leveraged himself with loans from a shady mortgage broker with mob connections.  When this broker is brought in as a witness Mickey asks a line of questions that would expose his organized crime activity and the broker is forced to plead "The Fifth."  Could this man have ordered a "hit" on the victim because of outstanding debt?  You bet.  Mickey's other ploy to create doubt in the jury's minds is to bring in a forensics expert who testifies that Lisa, who  stands 5 foot 3 inches, could not have struck the victim (who was well over six feet tall) on the top of his head where the fatal blows landed.

     The final half of the book is consumed with legal bickering and arguments over the admissibility of evidence and the relevance of certain witnesses and lines of questioning.  It is somewhat "Grisham-esque" in its legal detail.  It is worth the effort to get to what is a startling and dramatic turn of events and the conclusion.  Mickey (as expertly played in the movie by Matthew McConaughey) is at his best when he's the underdog and fighting for a losing cause.  This is a battle between a prosecutor who has what she thinks is a slam dunk conviction and a defense attorney who uses every trick in the book, occasionally bending the rules until they almost break.  Mickey Haller makes sure that justice is served in The Fifth Witness.  You'll have to read the book all of the way to the final page to find out exactly how he does it.

The Third Rail by Michael Harvey

     Michael Harvey has a Bachelor's Degree in Classical Languages from Holy Cross and a law degree from Duke.  He is a television and documentary producer and has won several Emmy Awards for that work.  This is his third crime novel, the first of which was The Chicago Way.  The main character in these books is Michael Kelly, a former Chicago detective who is now a private investigator.

     Kelly is waiting for a subway on an elevated platform when he witnesses a seemingly random murder.  He chases the shooter but loses him in an alley.  Later that same day the same perpetrator kills another random victim on the subway and poisons Holy Water in a Roman Catholic Church.  Forensic evidence links the crimes and suddenly the police and F.B.I. have a serial killer case on their hands.  Homeland Security becomes involved because of the possibility that this was a terrorist attack.  Michael Kelly is drawn into the investigation team because he was an eyewitness to the first crime in the spree.

     Michael doesn't trust the F.B.I. agent in charge of the team and conducts his own independent investigation using a computer expert and another former police officer as allies.  The computer expert uses internet search engines and some creative hacking to discover clues as to the motives for the crimes and possible suspects.  The site of the second subway shooting is actually in the identical location of a 1970s accident caused by faulty train brakes.  The company responsible for the production of the faulty equipment was never brought to justice and Michael and his team work around the theme of these killings being some sort of revenge acts.  In a seemingly unrelated way it is revealed that Michael was a passenger on one of the trains involved in the old accident and Michael's father was the train's conductor.

     Michael's girlfriend, a respected judge, is abducted by the serial killer and videotapes of her reading an ultimatum are delivered to Michael.  He then realizes that this is something personal directly related to him.  Could this be somehow related to the old train accident?  Michael has to search his childhood memory as well as the old case files from the accident investigation to cull clues as to the killer's identity.

     The plot is a bit convoluted but, somehow, it works.  The reader is taken down several false paths but eventually the whole story comes together with an unlikely resolution.  It's not quite as unanticipated as the ending the The Fifth Witness,  but it is close.  The characters in this book are well developed and the back stories are revealed in just enough detail at exactly the right times.  There is a lot more gratuitous violence in The Third Rail than there is in The Fifth Witness.

     If legal thrillers are more to your liking, read The Fifth Witness.  If you like more of a police procedural with some gore mixed in read The Third Rail.  If you've got a week off, what the heck, read them both!

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