..is one of Michael Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer novels, and it’s a dandy. Especially for writers.
It’s a departure for me from the general fiction and the mysteries I gravitate toward these days, but I was ready for a change and knew I’d learn something from a master. And I learned plenty.
Genre fiction is replete with categories and sub-categories. Within mysteries, for example, you’ll find cozies, police procedurals, and hard-boiled detective novels, among others. In a legal thriller like this one, you expect courtroom drama — and this has that element in droves.
Without giving anything away, the book follows the preparation Mickey Haller makes to prosecute a case through the case and to a very unexpected and satisfying conclusion. The through-plot is very straightforward: beginning, middle, and conclusion of the legal case at the center of the novel.
So what makes it such a compelling read?
Let’s take the book apart — from a writer’s perspective.
First, Connelly uses the “fish out of water” theme as a driver: Haller is an accomplished defense attorney, but he’s been selected to sit at the prosecution’s table for this case. The District Attorney makes Haller a deal, and Haller takes it. The stakes are high for Haller to succeed, but he’s not in his normal element.
This is one way the dramatic tension is heightened: the reader can’t help but wonder if Haller will succeed, despite the odds.
Second, the overall stakes are high — if the case is lost, a man believed by many to be a child killer will go free. This isn’t the sort of outcome any reader would want.
So the tension is ratcheted up further.
Third, the defense attorney is a formidable foe. He’s good — very good. Can Haller anticipate what he will do well enough to sustain a strong prosecution case? It’s like watching a snowball fight — the defense attorney keeps lobbing snowballs and Haller has to deflect them well enough to throw a few back.
Fourth, Haller elicits the help of his ex-wife, a strong prosecutor. She can help him maneuver the slings and arrows of the prosecution case, but the tension between them always rides just under the surface.
Fifth, their investigator, Detective Harry Bosch, uncovers some very troubling behavior on the part of the defendant, who’s been allowed to roam free during the trial. What is he up to? Will Bosch figure it out in time?
Sixth, Bosch and Haller have daughters — girls who fit the profile of the defendant’s victim.
Ikes! Can it get more intense than all this?
So the layering of dramatic, tension-building elements keeps getting stacked higher and higher. As a reader, I kept wondering if it would all come together — and if so, how. As a writer, I was intrigued by the methods Connelly used to make what could have been a dull trial procedural such a page-turner.
I saw this question in a forum last year, and now I’ve seen a real-life, successful example of how it can be done, despite my skepticism: can you have multiple points of view in one novel?
Connelly clearly believes you can, and he pulls it off in *The Reversal.* Chapter One is told in first person from Haller’s point of view (POV). Chapter Two is third person limited from Bosch’s POV. This alternating pattern repeats throughout the book.
For a purist like me, it took three or four chapters to get used to this rhythm, but from a writer’s perspective, this was the perfect structure for telling this story because both angles are integral to appreciating the full story. Bosch comes across things he doesn’t want to share with Haller, so having alternative POVs allows Connelly to show the reader what Bosch knows without violating the first person POV of the Lincoln Lawyer series.
POV and Tense
The structure gave Connelly a way to keep the pace moving — Bosch’s storyline adds a level of action and suspense that would have been difficult to pull off from Haller’s exclusive POV.
It could have been confusing, so what does Connelly do to make it effective? Two things.
First, he uses a consistent pattern so the reader can adjust to it. This is especially critical because he isn’t just shifting between Haller to Bosch, he’s also changing from first to third person. I haven’t read his other books, but would guess that he’s maintaining his consistency with the individual series that the Bosch and Haller characters usually star in.
Using chapter divisions to change not only the point of view but (most importantly) the change from first to third person creates the clean separation readers need to make the mental transition from being in one character’s head game to being in the other’s. Nothing is more visually clear in a book (even an e-book) than a chapter break.
The second way Connelly keeps the alternating POV from being confusing is maintaining a consistent tense. All chapters — regardless of POV — are told in past tense. Whether you’re in Haller’s head or sitting alongside Bosch, you’re getting the story in retrospect. Nothing is happening in “real time.”
If Connelly hadn’t used a consistent tense, the book would have been a mess. If we were reading Haller’s part in present tense (“I look across the courtroom to see Bosch come through the double doors…”) then Bosch’s in past tense (“Bosch pushed his way through the double doors into the courtroom, a note pressed into his palm for Haller.”) readers would have been kept off-kilter for no good reason. What was happening? Which happened first? Why am I getting some of this book as if it’s occurring now and another as if it happened a long time ago?
Instead, Connelly sticks to the past tense, telling the story as if in retrospect, as if looking back on events regardless of which character’s POV we’re reading at the moment. With the other challenges Connelly has given the reader — to accept alternating main characters and POVs — he had to be consistent with the tense. To do otherwise would have created confusion without anything to gain from it.
And you never want to confuse your readers. Readers who are confused become aware they’re reading a book — not what you want. You want your readers to be sucked in, absorbed to the point they’ve forgotten where they’re sitting, what’s around them. Readers want to be in that state. Don’t do something that keeps them from falling into that dreamlike state and staying there until they’re ready to come out of it.
Michael Connelly has figured out how to do that, even with a plot that on the surface seems destined to be dull, dull, dull. He’s not only given us a great read, he’s given us a great lesson in how to construct a great read.
Read and learn.