The Gods of Guilt, by Michael Connelly

There is nothing like a good mystery novel to clean one’s literary palette. After starting and never finishing novels by Michael Downing and Gregor von Rezzori, and then finishing novels by Mario Soldati and Julian Barnes, but not inspired to write about them, I sought a novel with a strong story line. I needed to clear away the deeper psychological explorations of life that existed in those four novels that had long been sitting on my bookshelf. And so I turned to a mystery. I wanted a change of pace. I wanted to read about people doing interesting things and a world I also found interesting. I wanted to sit down with a book that swept me up into a non-existent world that was as real as my own.

And so I turned to Michael Connelly, whose world was easy to enter, intriguing to follow, and yet intellectually and emotionally fulfilling. No, the world of mysteries may not be literature, but it brings its own pleasures. And The Gods of Guilt, published in 2013, offered me such pleasures.

This is the story of two crimes, and two campaigns for justice that confront Mickey Haller, a Los Angeles lawyer and one of two series heroes that Connelly has created. In the first crime, Andre La Cosse is arrested for the murder of a call girl, Gloria Dayton, whom Haller had helped in the past. And when La Cosse, who arranged the girl’s assignations online, says he is innocent of her death, Haller wants to believe him, and the reader does as well. But if La Cosse is not the killer, then who is? For the police to absolve La Cosse, Haller must find that person. And to do that, he must find out why Gloria was killed. Was it something she did in her past? And, sure enough, he recalls that a while ago he helped her betray a powerful drug dealer, Hector Moya, who is now in jail. And so he must now revisit the ramifications of Moya’s, perhaps false, arrest and his potential desire for revenge.

Whereupon, many complications follow. The major one is that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has led the local cops to identify La Cosse as the girl’s killer. So Haller has to battle with two levels of law enforcement, especially with a corrupt DEA man, James Marco. He also has to deal with a smart lawyer now in prison, his incompetent son, and another smart lawyer, who is now in a nursing home, plus two other call girls who once worked with Gloria. With one, Haller even establishes a romantic relationship.

There is also a personal complication. The Gods of Guilt of the title refers to juries, which decide the gilt or innocence of the person on trial. But Connelly extends this idea to a personal guilt that Haller feels. There is the guilt he feels for being estranged from his daughter, Hayley, who will not speak to him because she believes he caused the death of one of her girl friends. He also feels guilty because in the past he had tried to save Gloria from her call girl life, and now realizes that he has failed her. And there is further guilt awaiting him if he does not get the police to release La Cosse, his innocent client. Thus, by seeking justice for both La Cosse and Gloria, Haller his seeking redemption for his own sins of the past.

These complications enrich Haller’s character, create a certain vulnerability, and help the reader to identify with him. Thus, we accept his insistence that he will stretch the rules of the court in order to defend a client—that, “any ethical question or gray area could be overcome by the knowledge that it is the sworn duty of the defense attorney to present the best defense of his client.” In other words, a smart lawyer uses the law to his client’s advantage. And so we give Haller the benefit of doubt when he challenges the legal system in behalf of La Cosse.

It should also be recognized that Haller cares for people. He cares for Gloria, who he feels deceived him when she accepted his help. He cares for his daughter who will not speak to him. He cares about the employee he loses during this case. He cares about how his two ex-wives feel about him. And he cares about himself, about the guilt he feels at how he has failed in his relationships with others.

This novel is enhanced further by Haller’s relationship with each member of his legal team. All are real people because of those real relationships. When he loses one loyal member, for example, we feel its emotional impact on him. And with another, Jennifer Aronson, we relate to this young girl who begins as a legal aide but by the end of the case has impressed Haller with significant legal contributions.

The heart of this novel is the lengthy trial scene at its conclusion. It is told to the reader with supreme craft, for Connelly has Haller explain the purpose behind each legal step he is taking before he dramatizes it. Yet, this explanation is in no way condescending to the reader. Indeed, one is fascinated by the misdirection Haller employs to catch off-guard witnesses testifying before him. The result is legal steps so complicated and yet so logical that one speculates that Connelly is challenging here one of our best authors, Scott Turow, in creating courtroom drama.

This courtroom drama is developed with step-by-step logic to arrive at a convincing resolution. If there is no last-minute development, no surprise ending, none becomes necessary. Its logic simply works. Yes, there is a sudden act of violence at the end, but it was not, for me, necessary. It simply turns into dramatic action an admission of guilt, a technique that many authors rely on these days. And Connelly uses such a dramatic moment to achieve his convincing ending.

While this work is certainly not literature, it encourages one to seek out more Connelly novels, whether the central figure is lawyer Mickey Haller, as here, or policeman Harry Bosch. They are half brothers, and each has a distinctive attitude toward their job. But both do believe in justice, and in each Connelly series they do not hesitate to stretch the law in order to achieve it. (September, 2017)

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The Hive, by Camilo Jose Cela

This 1953 novel has been on my bookshelf for more than forty years, perhaps longer. I bought it when my interest in Spain and Spanish literature was at its peak. I wished back then to compare this author, who was then called Spain’s greatest living novelist, with Jose Maria Gironella, whose The Cypresses Believe in God was a favorite of mine.

I now regret having let so much time pass before reading this book. Because my memory can no longer track the experiences of each of the scores of characters who appear and reappear throughout. That is, I was not able to connect their daily, often insignificant, encounters, which make up the substance of this novel. This failure applies to both linking with the past actions of specific characters as they reappear, and also recalling how different character earlier reacted to each other when these characters appear again. For the accumulation of these connections is how Cela gives a literary depth to the underside of Madrid society.

What he does is use isolated moments to reveal the substance within each character. But he reveals them through different approaches: an incisive description, a subtle psychological analysis, one’s role in society, or a routine confrontation. Cela’s objective here is to convey a cross section of Madrid’s lower-class society as a means to portray to unaware readers the impact of poverty in the 1940s on millions of Spaniards.

Cela himself has written that this novel “is nothing but a pale reflection, a humble shadow of the harsh, intimate, painful reality of every day…..My novel sets up to be no more—yet no less either—than a slice of life told step by step, without reticences, without external tragedies, without charity, exactly as life itself rambles on.”

And he has certainly achieved this. For there is no overarching story here. There are, simply, people meeting in a café, in tenements, on the streets, or even in brothels. They negotiate with each other, help each other, lie to each other, loan or borrow money, feed each other, betray each other, seduce each other, laugh and cry with each other, and on and on.

There are, indeed, too many characters for a cohesive story line—160 by the author’s own count. Instead, there are these disconnected incidents that serve to convey a way of life that most readers are unaware of. Yet these characters share certain characteristics: a desire for love, for companionship, for independence, for personal fulfillment, for a successful career, and, most importantly, for respect from others.

As Arturo Barea says in his Introduction, “He shows us the pitiful content of their lives: hunger, greed, fear, frustration, desire, malice, snobbery, poverty, nausea, and fumbling tenderness, all expressing themselves through small talk and small actions.”

As these characters interact with others, most do so only within their own group. And there are many groups. Which, altogether, comprise a portion of Madrid society. And Cela compares this interaction with bees in a beehive, which complement one another to make the hive work. Thus, with his title, Cela creates the metaphor that suggests the purpose he is striving for, the portrait of a cohesive but hidden society that the reader never thinks about.

I finished this novel more out of respect than enjoyment. For I usually prefer a novel that explores the inner lives of its characters. Not the slice-of-life approach, as here, an approach that remains on the surface, that deals with objective reality rather than probes the minds and souls of its characters. But Barea defends this approach as appropriate for a novel set in Spain in 1943, in the midst of World War II. This novel, he says, has “a hard core of truth in the Spain of today. There, the surface of life has once more to be described with all its significant ugliness, before the writers can go on to the exploration of the ‘inner country’; to put it differently, any Spanish psychological novel would be lopsided unless it included the harsh domination of hunger, misery, and unsafety in their humdrum forms.”

This hard-core surface approach may also explain why Cela’s reputation has not spread beyond Spain in the years since he wrote this work. Not only did Spanish literature exist in a world apart back then, but his slice-of-life approach has not since gained favor in the literary world. Moreover, the crude experiences of his characters were difficult for his contemporary readers to identify with—and remain so for readers today.

Which explains why I will not pursue Cela’s further work. As I wrote, he is an excellent writer, a true writer of literature, who has created here a rich world of troubled but sympathetic characters, and caught their physical and emotional environment, as well as their common humanity. But he did not create characters a reader could identify with, nor a world in which one feels comfortable. He was his own man. He had his own integrity. But, sadly, it is not for me. (September, 2017)

Nora Webster, by Colm Toibin

The Irish widow whose name comprises the title of this novel surges to life on these pages. As does Ireland itself. But the heart of this 2014 novel homes in on the mourning that Nora endures, following the death of her husband of 21 years from a heart attack. Even though she does not mention it, and neither does author Toibin, that mourning produces in Nora an emotional seclusion that is buried deep within her. It surfaces with such thoughts as: “You learn, no matter what age you are, to keep things to yourself.”

And so, we follow the widow Nora as she, first, pushes away any help from her own and her husband Maurice’s family. While her two older daughters, Fiona and Aine, are away at school, and so concern her less. In her own suffering, she is also blind to the mourning of her two young boys, Donal, who hides behind his photography, his stammer, and smart comments, and Conor, who hides intelligence inside his own innocence.

But there are those in town, and the perceptive reader, who recognize what she does not. That she is withdrawing from the world and hiding behind her own mourning. Whereas, she needs to turn back to the world. So people try to change her. Because they loved her dead husband Maurice, see the goodness inside Nora herself, or they value her reputation. One offers her a job, to supplement her pension. One asks her help to start a union in her company. One invites her into the public arena by filling a gap at a community function. One suggests she get away by joining her on a vacation to Spain. One suggests she join a choir to take advantage of the voice she has inherited. And as she does accept these invitations, albeit some with reservations, one does sense her cautiously re-opening herself to the world around her.

Moreover, as Nora gradually comes out of her defensive mode, she re-evaluates the needs of both her children and herself. She understands that an awareness of reality and a certain freedom will make her children stronger, and that she needs to think of her own needs as well, such as the pleasures of buying new clothes and enjoying music. And slowly, she learns to make such decisions, rather than wondering what Maurice might have wanted.

One wonders where this novel is going, once Nora seems to have recovered her bearings. But this is when the work becomes truly rich. For she has not fully recovered. There is more to be absorbed, and more withdrawal to be made from the past. She must ignore dreams of a past death, or any conversation with her dead husband. And she must renew the closeness with her three sisters that has not existed for a long while. Even an overheard conversation among those sisters—“She was a demon,” one says—opens to the reader the younger Nora, and deepens her portrait, revealing how her marriage to Maurice saved her from a life that was stifling her.

Nora’s final withdrawal from the past will be the symbolic burning of the letters her husband wrote before they were married. “She did not look at them. She knew them.” And: “they belonged to a time that was over now and would not come back.” For some, this might be too obvious a symbol to appear on the final two pages of this novel. But for me the burning as well as the entire final wind-down to this novel is the perfect conclusion to this life whose story is concluding at one level and yet must continue on another.

For this novel is about life. Yes, about Nora’s life. But also about human existence. How each story within our own lives often does wind down quietly. And how any dramatic event would have spoiled this novel, spoiled its blend of uncertainty and confidence that characterized Nora’s life after her husband’s unexpected death. And Toibin does emphasize that uncertainty, for Maurice in his ghostly reappearance suggests, without detail, that something is going to happen to Conor; and then he also says, “The other one. There is one other.” And neither we nor Nora understands what he means. But it is a suggestion of the unknowableness, the uncertainty, of life itself.

In the background of this quiet story, anti-British violence flares in Ireland. It is the 1960s and 1970s. Much discussion of these events takes place, but the reason is not clear. It appears to be intended to offer a contrasting drama to heighten the quiet of Nora’s life, and perhaps, through the family discussions, to bring to life those people in her extended family. Even Nora’s visit to Dublin with Fiona in search of Aine, who is participating in an anti-British demonstration, is anti-climatic, for Nora trusts that Fiona will find her sister, and so the mother returns home.

Perhaps, as Jennifer Egan suggests in the New York Times, “each of these crises dissipates, as crises often do in real life…[and represents] Toibin’s resistance to an artificially dramatic arc.” She also adds: “The absence of melodrama…gives the illusion that Toibin’s carefully engineered novel is unfolding with the same erratic rhythms as actual life.” And that, indeed, is the path of Nora’s initial escape—into the details of her job, the details of her music training, and the details of family get-togethers.

It is such small decisions that Nora makes, along with her growing self-awareness, that help us identify with her suffering. As she realizes she will never have a musical career, she does enjoy the pleasures of music, even if it is “leading her away from Maurice…she was alone with herself in a place where he never would have followed her, even in death.” To step away from Maurice, and toward independence, she knows, will help save her.

As Nora slowly recognizes this need to break from the past, she becomes more alive. Living within herself was not enough for her, just as it was not enough for the reader. As an example, she begins repainting her home without thinking of what Maurice would want or say, or of the cost. And if the latter comes at a price, a few strained muscles, she learns that she cannot do everything herself. She must also rely on others.

To separate herself from the past, Nora finally donates the clothes of Maurice that she couldn’t let go. And then burns his letters. She also agrees to sing in a concert of religious music, a concert that memorializes a concert of forgiveness offered after World War II. It represents indirectly, I think, the peace Nora now feels, and perhaps starts her wondering if she can forgive God, the God Donal has just reminded her of, for the loss of her husband. It also reminds me to look for more of Colm Toibin’s fine work. (August, 2017)