The Reversal, By Michael Connelly

A novel that meddles with morals

For years, Michael Connelly was a name for cognoscenti to bring up when far less accomplished – but more successful – authors were mentioned. Not any more: this immensely capable American crime novelist has rocketed to bestseller status via a TV book club recommendation for The Lincoln Lawyer. That fact may stymie those who want to flourish their credentials as aficionados – but it's no doubt good news for Connelly and his bank manager.

His new book, The Reversal, is further proof of his proficiency. Connelly's protagonist, lawyer Mickey Haller, knows his reputation is in need of a little finessing as (despite his skills) his low-rent, bottom-feeding days are fresh in various memories. So he is on his best behaviour when dining with the Machiavellian district attorney of Los Angeles County.

Mickey is suspicious when invited to prosecute a case which would involve switching sides with the DA, who is keen to retry a convicted child killer, Jason Jessup. He had languished on death row for several decades before DNA evidence brought about his release. Mickey is unable to say no – and at least he has the help of Detective Harry Bosch, who is to be his lead investigator.

But as Bosch and Haller unearth grim facts about the Jessup case, they become convinced that the original trial verdict had been correct: Jessup is guilty. The DA, for his own reasons, is presenting Jessup as the innocent pawn in a case of judicial corruption. Mickey is aware that this is a case he cannot lose – even though his client, once released, is likely to murder again.

Bernard Shaw said that the ability to take liberties was the secret of success. Connelly is fully aware that taking liberties with both his characters and the conventions of the crime novel can have some impressive results. In The Reversal, he manipulates our positive response to his two signature characters (Haller and Bosch) by forcing us to change our minds about the ethics of their behaviour – and their juggling with the queasy gradations of right and wrong.

This moral balancing act obliges us frequently to re-jig our attitude to his characters. It makes the novel more complex than genre fiction usually allows, and we end up destabilised. This, though, is quite an achievement for a piece of accessible popular fiction – and a salutary reminder of why we need to go on reading Michael Connelly.