January 10, 2014

Michael Connelly - is he guilty?

A long absence on this blog, folks, because I've been finishing a (non-crime) book and, you know, having Christmas and New Year and stuff.

So what's to report?

Well, I've recently read Michael Connelly's latest Mickey Haller book, The Gods of Guilt, and thought it was pretty terrible, actually. As with his Harry Bosch series, Connelly seems to be running out of steam. He relies way too much on exposition and not enough on placing us in the middle of the action. This is always a danger with court-room dramas, and writers have two possible options - one is to make the out-of-court story interesting in itself; the other is to make the examination of witnesses compelling and revelatory.

Strike out on both counts here.

Haller's storyline when he's not in court is essentially to track down and talk to witnesses. As we might have expected, he falls for an ex-prostitute who suddenly, without further ado, becomes his girlfriend and then vanishes into the background. There's a lot of time spent setting her up, and Haller's relationship to her ... but the next thing we know he's waking up in her bed and driving home. How did that happen? And what are the consequences? And what do his team members think of his sudden shacking up with an ex-hooker and potential witness in the current case? All it does is attempt to show Haller as a human being, but it actually portrays him as someone shallow.

The other element of his out-of-court activity is his non-relationship with his daughter, who's moved away from home and is living with mom. For most of the book Haller tries to get her involved in his life but she ignores him. And in the end, we don't care. We don't see or hear her and so the relationship has no life and we can barely feel his pain. The time he spends on hillsides watching her through binoculars as she plays field hockey just seems creepy. I suppose it's supposed to act as a counterpoint to Harry Bosch's relationship with his daughter but it doesn't work.

What can't be ignored, either - and hasn't been by many review critics - is the way the death of one of his team members is almost brutally ignored. The person dies (no spoilers) ... cut to next part, a couple of months later. No aftershocks, no emotional soul-searching, no change in behaviour. Given the way he used to be able to handle this kind of personal trauma in the Bosch series, it's a severe disappointment that he can't really deal with it more sensitively here. As a result, the book becomes eminently plot-driven, and the characters lose their reality - after all, they're just pawns in Connelly's hands and they have to do what he wishes. (There's a strange semi-postmodern game that he's playing with readers these days, too ... he has his characters refer to films made of earlier 'cases' - for Bosch, Blood Work, made into a film starring and directed by Clint Eastwood; for Haller, The Lincoln Lawyer, starring Matthew McConaughey. Their references to these films create a weird virtual world in which fictional characters talk about real films made from fictions. You feel a bit like Alice going down the rabbit-hole and not knowing which way is up.)

The second option open to legal thriller writers is to build up the courtroom drama itself - something at which Scott Turow, for example, excels. In this book, unfortunately, Connelly shows us Haller questioning a lot of witnesses on the stand, but he has to keep telling us what's important about the testimony, because he assumes we don't understand. OR, what happens is so predictable (again, no spoilers) that we sigh when the plot-twist arrives. There is a major turn at the end of the trial, but this is so extreme and, really, so out-of-character for the person involved, that it just seems silly.

A symptom of how badly Connelly has misjudged this book is in the title itself: The Gods of Guilt. Haller tells us this is his name for the jury in a trial, because they're the ones who'll determine whether the accused is guilty or not. Well, OK ... but it's such a crap name for them I can't imagine anyone speaking the words out loud. But Haller does, on several occasions, and it just sounds lame. He'd just call them 'the jury', surely? Calling them Gods does them no favours and doesn't elevate the book to any kind of meditation on the justice system and its good or bad points, which is perhaps what he was intending.

I used to really look forward to a new Connelly. Now I'm starting to open the books a little more gingerly and hope he can get back to the standard of The Poet or The Narrows. Though I'm not holding out much hope.