The big challenge with creating a character like Mickey Haller, a low-flying defence lawyer who games the system to advantage his petty criminal clients, is you don’t get the benefit of the doubt with readers, says acclaimed crime writer Michael Connelly. “This is a character who most people would despise. So the challenge was to make them want to ride with him throughout the story.”
The story Connelly is talking about, his measured voice coming down the line from his Tampa, Florida, home, is The Lincoln Lawyer, his best-selling 2005 novel that has now been adapted into a star-studded, gritty Hollywood film. Haller seems to have struck the jackpot when he’s hired to defend Louis Roulet, scion of a wealthy Beverly Hills family, who’s accused of a brutal assault and attempted rape. But neither Roulet nor his alleged victim are what they seem, leading to a chess match between attorney and client, and complications for one of Haller’s old cases.
In the film version, which has been getting good reviews, Matthew McConaughey plays Haller, a slick attorney with a hidden conscience who operates out of the back of a Lincoln town car tagged with a personalised plate boldly reading “NTGUILTY”. Connelly, who had a consulting role on the film, “just could not be happier” with the way his novel was brought to the big screen. It’s a return to dramatic form for McConaughey, who’s been mired in the shirtless romcom wilderness at times. When I ask whether it was McConaughey’s impressive performances in thrillers like A Time to Kill, Lone Star and the underrated Frailty that made Connelly comfortable with him as Haller, he laughs. “This will sound odd, but to me the movie where I saw he could do it was Tropic Thunder, which is a comedy, but he plays a Hollywood agent … he has that ‘gaming the system’ type of character going. When I saw that, I just kind of knew he could do this part really well.”
Connelly, who was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize during his former career as a journalist, is a fairly reserved person, “not very outwardly demonstrative”. But he is passionate about storytelling and his characters, and I can hear the (restrained) excitement in his voice when we talk about the film. “I think it’s a better than good adaptation, it’s very loyal to the book, and everyone from McConaughey right down the line did wonderful jobs in capturing these characters.”
The film certainly has an impressively deep cast. Oscar winner Marisa Tomei plays Haller’s ex-wife, William H Macy his investigator, Ryan Phillipe his rich playboy client, and other minor roles are filled by familiar faces, including John Leguizamo and Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston. The adaptation really benefited from great acting, says Connelly, who met McConaughey in 2009 to talk about Haller (the pair exchanged emails about the character for several months before filming started), and visited the set during filming, talking to several of the actors about their characters.
It’s clear he has really enjoyed playing his (small) part in the film-making process, getting an up-close view of the way his story has been translated to the screen. “It’s just been a wonderful experience. It’s a level of fulfilment that’s different to [what] you get from holding a book in your hand, which is equally fantastic. But this doesn’t happen as often for me, so it’s been a great ride.”
The Lincoln Lawyer is the second of Connelly’s 23 novels (the latest of which, The Fifth Witness, has just been released and also stars Haller) to get the Hollywood treatment. In 2002, Clint Eastwood directed and starred in a disappointing adaptation of Blood Work, Connelly’s thriller about an FBI agent chasing the killer of a woman whose heart he’d received in a life-saving transplant.
Unlike his recent experience, Connelly had “zero involvement” with Blood Work after the usually excellent Eastwood, who likes to do things his own way with his own team, secured the rights. “I don’t say that grudgingly or angrily,” says Connelly. “That was the deal I made, and I’m fine with it.”
However, Connelly says he did struggle to write about FBI profiler Terry McCaleb again after seeing Eastwood’s film version, which changed several things from his novel. “I felt like I didn’t want to write about that character anymore,” he says. “Clint Eastwood was just so different from the character [I’d envisaged], so the next time I wrote about him I killed off that character.”
He admits there was a lingering concern a similar thing could happen once he saw the film version of Haller, a character he’s really grown to love writing about (the series also includes The Brass Verdict and The Reversal). But McConaughey “met my idea of who this guy was, so it didn’t affect the way I wrote about him”, says Connelly, who was writing The Fifth Witness while The Lincoln Lawyer was being filmed.
The Lincoln Lawyer was Connelly’s first foray into the world of legal thrillers, after more than a decade of writing an award-winning series starring LAPD Detective Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch and a number of stand-alone thrillers. With Bosch, who last year was voted “the world’s favourite detective” in an online poll, the author admits he never had to worry about having the readers on his side, “because this guy is in a noble pursuit, he’s a guy who solves the ultimate crime, murder”.
Haller may be part of the same criminal justice machine, but his role isn’t generally seen in the same positive light. Connelly needed to engage his readers in a different way. He wrote The Lincoln Lawyer in the first person, serving as Haller’s “confession”; the cynical lawyer realises he’s lost his love for the law and had his principles and ideals corrupted “by working in this rusty system”. If someone knows that’s happened to them, says Connelly, then “there is a loss there and we can all be sympathetic and connect to that loss”.
Connelly hoped readers would see Haller’s outward actions, how he games the system and goes about winning, but would then be brought in by “the internal side” where Haller mentions what he believed the law spoke for at some point in his life. “Not necessarily liking or loving the guy, but wanting to get in the car with him and ride, and see where the story goes.”
Not that The Lincoln Lawyer is all about inner conflict. There’s plenty of external drama as well. It’s just that Connelly prefers to give his crime novels depth, layering in vividly depicted characters and settings, and touching on contemporary issues, in among his exciting storylines; some things to think about, while you’re enjoying the ride. “It makes me feel like I’ve elevated my game a little bit if I can reflect a little bit of what’s going on in the world, or in my world. The trick is to never be didactic. What I try to do is finesse into my stories a sense of what’s going on out there, and maybe that raises some questions in the readers’ minds.”
In The Fifth Witness, what’s “going on out there” is the financial crisis; Haller has found himself defending his clients more from foreclosures than from criminal charges. But then one client who has loudly accused her bank of fraudulent practices finds herself indicted for murder when the bank’s CEO is found dead in a car park. Throughout the novel, Haller also learns some startling truths about himself.
For Connelly, it’s vitally important his ongoing characters evolve over time. “If you’re going to engage readers with a character that comes around [regularly], there’s just no way the character can remain static from book to book,” he explains. “There has to be change and evolution and self-exploration and understanding.”
He notes that “you wouldn’t want to be friends with someone who never changed, that every time you dropped by and had a beer he said the same things or did the same things or had the same view”, and it’s the same with writing about a character like Haller. “If he didn’t change, then what’s the point? I think Mickey is a complicated person. He plugs along on his cases, and he whispers to you about how this world works – there’s this perceived notion of how justice works, and then there’s the real wheels of justice and how they turn. That’s what these books are about on the legal side, and then on another side it’s Mickey trying to explain life to himself.”
In the end, his writing is all about character, says Connelly. “Do you want to ride with this character for the story? Where the car goes, that’s very important, that’s the plot, but the key question is: are you comfortable with your driver, the protagonist?”
Haller may have started behind the eight ball, being introduced first as a typically sleazy lawyer, but as Connelly has found, and millions of readers and now film audience members worldwide have discovered, he’s a driver well worth riding with.
Even if he does sit in the back seat of his Lincoln.
THE FIFTH WITNESS by Michael Connelly (Allen & Unwin, $39.99); Connelly will be talking to Craig Sisterson ahead of a screening of The Lincoln Lawyer at Event Cinemas, Queen St, Auckland, in an Auckland Writers & Readers Festival special event on May 24. The film is not being released theatrically in New Zealand but will be available on DVD from August 3.