This review contains spoilers.
The machinations of the Los Angeles court system are clearest in Michael Haller’s rearview mirror. Haller is a defense lawyer and the protagonist of Michael Connelly’s 2005 crime fiction novel “The Lincoln Lawyer.” Rather than a brick-and-mortar office, a Lincoln Town Car is the headquarters of Haller’s law office.
This book is best described as the apex airport novel. On the surface, it has the same qualities of a sleazy, cheap paperback sold for a few dollars at Newark International Airport. Haller is a fast-talking, intelligent protagonist who is often able to maneuver his way out of every obstacle and is a double divorcé to boot.
The reason I hate the airport genre, best exemplified by writers like Dan Brown, is that they are so often oversimplified and sexist. A common trope is for the male protagonist to defeat the villains alone, only relying on his own intelligence and perhaps muscles. The women in such novels only exist as romantic interests for the protagonist, and not a sentence goes by without mentioning one of their body parts.
Most importantly, there are almost no gray areas. The protagonist is always correct, while the antagonists are the personification of evil itself. These factors are why I could never get through more than a few chapters of acclaimed airport books like “The Da Vinci Code.”
Yet my first clue that “The Lincoln Lawyer” is different should have come from Haller’s profession. He is a defense lawyer, not a prosecutor, and his motto is to introduce “reasonable doubt.” As a rule, he does not deal in absolutes, and neither does this book.
Haller is a low-level attorney living in Los Angeles, where his clients are primarily gang members, drug dealers, and sex workers. What struck me was the absolute fairness with which Connelly wrote about these characters. The book does not excuse their actions, which include crimes like murder and robbery, but explains the extremely difficult conditions in which they were raised to provide context.
In addition, many of these clients are people of color, and “The Lincoln Lawyer” often references the racism and prejudice that they were shown by the police department. Yet Connelly never celebrates or condemns these individuals, or even the prosecutor’s department — his goal is to humanize them, and make the audience understand that they are just people. For a book written nearly 20 years ago, this viewpoint feels remarkably nuanced.
Haller himself is also a very flawed individual, but Connelly makes him endearing rather than irritating by forgoing stereotypes. Rather than being written as a lady-killer — which, trust me, is an extremely common trope in this genre — Haller is still in love with his ex-wife and respectful of all women in the novel. This is a very low expectation, but one not fulfilled by many books.
In addition, he makes mistakes in personal and professional involvements throughout the course of the novel, mostly because of his inability to rely on anyone else’s judgment. Many authors would think of independence as a strength, but Connelly shows that too much self-reliance can be harmful.
The novel itself revolves around Haller’s first high-paying case in years. A wealthy real estate agent, Louis Roulet, claims to have been assaulted and robbed by a sex worker when he visited her apartment. Meanwhile, the sex worker, Reggie Campo, says that Roulet broke in, sexually assaulted her and would have killed her if not for her neighbors’ help in subduing him.
Haller is hired by Roulet as a defense attorney and believes Roulet’s version of events at first due to inconsistencies with the victim’s story. However, Haller’s investigation reveals many issues with Roulet’s background. He remembers a former client named Jésus Menendez, who was convicted for a similar crime.
Ultimately, Haller realizes that Roulet is guilty and committed the crime that resulted in Menendez’s imprisonment. Meanwhile, Roulet threatens Haller’s friends and family if he reveals this information, leading to a high-stakes trial in which Haller is pulled between his commitment to his client and the truth.
In many ways, “The Lincoln Lawyer” addresses universal fears. Haller is wracked with guilt after realizing that his lack of trust condemned an innocent man to a lifetime in prison. A major theme is recognition of the guilty and innocent, just as the audience might find it difficult to distinguish between good and bad decisions.
Interestingly, the novel does not have an answer for this problem. Although relying on one’s instincts alone is not correct, other viewpoints are often just as nearsighted. The only way through law and life, the book seems to say, is to muddle through with input from trusted people. The ending of the case is bittersweet; although justice is served, it comes at a high cost.
I remember staying up all night to read this novel. Every character is painted so realistically, even if they are only referenced for a few sentences. When Haller’s loved ones were in danger, I was nervous for them as well. The book truly feels like a dramatized account of a real defense lawyer’s case.
In addition, there are plenty of humorous moments. Haller’s numerous attempts to get back in his ex-wife’s good graces are light-hearted tension breakers. Haller is a somewhat absent father to his young daughter Hayley, owing to his busy schedule; he spends much of the novel trying to spend time with her, including at awkward parent-teacher events.
“The Lincoln Lawyer” cannot be classified as high literature, but it’s one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in recent months. I don’t like to buy books until I’ve read them at least once, so that I know whether a novel has re-read value. I will be traveling this holiday season, and I will certainly pack this book to read on the trip there and back.
The novel has also inspired a film and a Netflix limited series, which I have not watched. However, if you don’t like to read, I would recommend watching them, at least for the gripping storyline. As for the book itself, it’s the perfect travel novel, leagues above anything else in its genre. I rate it five out of five crabs!