The Reversal BY Michael Connelly Orion, 400pp, £18.99
Last year Michael Connelly took his readers on a slow boat to China. He wrote Nine Dragons, a flat and gimmicky story featuring his long-suffering Los Angeles police detective, Harry Bosch.
Harry's usual stomping ground is the depraved underbelly of LA, but Nine Dragons sent him on a touristy detour to Hong Kong. It also used one of the detective novel's cheapest tricks, the kidnapping of someone near and dear to the hero (in this case his schoolgirl daughter) to generate suspense.
Fortunately Connelly has returned to solid ground with The Reversal - its "the" title making it sound safely like one of John Grisham's courthouse generics (Grisham's next one, due later this month, is The Confession).
The Reversal also brings back Mickey Haller, the relatively new Connelly character who emerged as a leading man in The Lincoln Lawyer. He even showed up in Nine Dragons, which seemed to incorporate everything but the Connelly kitchen sink.
Taking no chances this time, Connelly creates major roles for both the contentious Mickey and his moodier half-brother, Harry. However venerable and well-loved Harry may be, it's become clear that Mickey's brazenness brings these books a new brio. So Connelly gives Mickey the larger role and makes him the story's narrator. He has dreamed up a criminal case in which both can be involved. And then, once the story's larger framework is in place, he executes the subtle sleight of hand that makes each of his books so much more than the sum of its parts.
The first few pages of The Reversal will convince no-one that this book ought to be read on its literary merits. They explain how Mickey, ordinarily a wily defence lawyer ("me, Mickey Haller, defender of the damned") and a happily outlandish one, is roped into serving as a prosecutor.
The case is 24 years old. The defendant, Jason Jessup, was convicted of killing a 12-year-old girl. He went to prison, but now he is being retried on the basis of new DNA evidence, thanks to the Genetic Justice Project, which has turned the Jessup case into a cause clbre and Jessup into a lowlife celebrity. The new trial has become so fraught that the district attorney, a man with political ambitions, wants to bring in an outsider to keep his own rival, the California attorney general, away from the proceedings. Enter Mickey.
"That case is a duck without wings," Mickey complains, sounding like no human being this side of a movie screen. "The only thing left to do is shoot it and eat it." In much the same spirit he throws back talk at the DA ("I'm an independent contractor, remember? You treat me otherwise and you're going to be holding his hot potato without an oven mitt."). No matter: Mickey is soon hooked. He'd like to prevail against Jessup, a gloating lout who stands to become rich and famous if exonerated. But what the man, whose slogan was once "Any case, Anytime, Anywhere," likes even better is calling himself "Mickey Haller for the People".
Now Connelly works Harry into the mix. Mickey needs an investigator. And, as this author's long-time devotees know, Harry Bosch is simply the best.
The story also draws on Maggie McPherson, aka Maggie McFierce, the deputy DA who is Mickey's ex-wife, and Rachel Walling, the FBI profiler who has been a very close personal friend of Harry's. This criminal investigation threatens to turn into a double date.
But the serious strengths of The Reversal become apparent after the principals are in place. Connelly likes to explicate the workings of the judicial process, especially for the benefit of people "who venture naively into the justice system" and "leave the courthouse wondering what just happened". He can illustrate the basics of criminal investigation better than most. And he makes suspenseful use of simple but diabolical complications for the prosecution. In this case, it is essential that the jury never learns, despite runaway press coverage, that Jessup has stood trial for the same crime before. All stylistic posturing vanishes when this book gets down to basics, creating a classic detective-story puzzle around the facts of the girl's disappearance.
Harry expertly tracks down leads in this long-neglected case, while Mickey prepares for the chess manoeuvres of the trial. And when all of the characters begin working together, sparks really fly. Suffice it to say that there is a moment in the courtroom when Mickey outmanoeuvres the defence so well that Harry glares at Jessup and feigns a throat-cutting, just to indicate which side he thinks is winning. But Connelly doesn't really write about winners and losers. He writes true-to-life fiction about true crime. What makes his stories ring truest is that they're never really over.