The Process behind Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller
Call this an admission, even a confession.In lines that became classic the moment they reached their first readers, Michael Connelly began The Brass Verdict with his protagonist, Mickey Haller, asserting: “Everybody lies. Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The victims lie. A trial is a contest of lies.” The setup for these claims appeared at the end of The Lincoln Lawyer: “I don’t know where I will go or what cases will be mine. I just know I will be healed and ready to stand once again in the world without truth.”Before I go further, I’ll confess that I’m not sure I would have gotten published had I not read and analyzed the construction and role in the story of the carwash scene in Connelly’s Harry Bosch novel, City of Bones. It represents a pattern in which Connelly establishes that certain tensions are inherent in a situation and then exploits them. Sometimes enacting them on the page—as in the chaos that erupts in this scene—and sometimes leaving them in his characters’ and, therefore, in his readers’ minds. I’ll admit it was a struggle to do this analysis for during the early years of my career when I was investigating street crimes, I made many visits to carwashes searching for witnesses, as Bosch does here, but chaos never erupted. A little slinking away, some averted faces, and lots of lying, but never chaos.From the perspective of a former investigator, Connelly is among the most insightful and knowledgeable of crime writers for the tensions he displays are always authentic, grounded in reality, not artificially imposed. No investigator ever visited a carwash populated by ex-cons and sometime gang members without at least a flicker of concern that he or she might have to fight somebody.
The lesson of that scene for me was about establishing for the reader—and then exploiting—the potential for conflict and about not making fiction a reenactment of life, at least in that way.
Now back to Haller and his claims: Everybody lies . . . A trial is a contest of lies . . . stand once again in the world without truth.
Even though I know people who think these sorts of thoughts, I could not bring myself to put them in the mind of a protagonist I want a reader to care about. (I tried it in a short story and I’m not sure anyone understood what I was getting at.) That Connelly is able to accomplish this is stunning. And even if I had his writing talent, I have discovered that my imagination is too constrained by the particularities of my career to do it. Indeed, the power of Connelly’s writing and imagination is such that I’m about to have an argument with one of his characters!
The Haller lines, which I have no reason to believe are the views of Connelly himself and which Haller does not always act on, are at best only half truths: everybody lies, sometimes; a trial is not a contest of lies, though some are; and the world of the courtroom is not without truth, though falsehoods sometimes corrupt it. In fact, outside the fictional world within which disbelief is suspended, lies only succeed against a background of truth.
The world of the courtroom is no more without truth than the world beyond: The Twin Towers fell. Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman are dead. In 1989 Aryan Brotherhood member Michael Shepherd admitted to me that he participated in killing Irish O’Farrell, a leader of the Hell’s Angels. Article VIII, Rule 801 of the Federal Rules Evidence deals with hearsay—all true statements, facts upon which we base our opinions and conclusions, our verdicts on the world.
In the typical criminal trial the defendant is, in fact, guilty of some or all of what he or she is charged with; the prosecutor presents to the jury evidence of that guilt; the defense argues that the witnesses are lying or mistaken and the forensic results are unreliable. Occasionally, a victim or a police officer will lie or will dupe a prosecutor into putting on false evidence; a prosecutor will knowingly put on false testimony and conceal exculpatory material from the defense; and a defense attorney will suborn perjury or attempt to intimidate a witness. But none of this justifies Haller’s blanket assertion that “A trial is a contest of lies.”
In truth, the ordinary trial displays a kind of ordinary heroism by all parties. They acknowledge the discoverability of facts and what Hannah Arendt called their coercive nature: that legal and moral consequences follow from them. And this remains the case even though prosecutors and defense attorneys sometimes employ rules of evidence to keep certain of those facts from coming before the court, judges and juries draw the wrong conclusions from the facts, and judges sometimes make mistakes of law.
It is certainly true that, with Haller, Connelly has captured an aspect of the American criminal justice system, that lies occasionally win out over facts and that false and contrived defenses sometime overcome true guilt. At the same time, I have never seen anyone who held that the world of the courtroom is without truth and that a trial is a contest of lies—or was willing to act as if these were true—serve anything close to justice. Nor do they serve the poor or the weak or the innocent. They only serve themselves—and convince others to call it justice. I’ve seen the damage they have done and have never been able to discover anything redeeming about them. My imagination remains constrained by that fact and my thinking focused on that damage, whether done by judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, private investigators, or law enforcement officers. Which means I’ve always been and will always be on the side of Bosch in the City of Bones and never on the side of Haller anywhere.