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)

Identical, by Scott Turow

This starts out as a wonderful novel from 2013. It begins with the family tensions that arose in 1982, when Paul Gianis tried to save his twin, Cass Gianis, from marrying the provocative and beautiful Dita Kronon. Then it jumps to 2008 and takes on a political flavor, as Paul decides to run for mayor.

So I settled in to read a wonderful novel, even literature, as author Turow introduces these two Greek families. And it soon becomes apparent that what occurred in 1982 between the Gianis and the Kronons has major repercussions in 2008. Of the two families, there is the wealthy entrepreneur Zeus (Zisis) Kronon and his son Hal (Herakles) and daughter Dita (Aphrodite). And from the Gianis family, there are the twins, Paul, a lawyer and leader of the state senate, and Cass, and their mother, Lidia. Turow presents these families in considerable richness and depth, with their present reflecting the past and their past influencing the future.

To help convey the link between the past events and current relationships, Turow has made two decisions. First, he has scattered through his novel, step by step, details of the violent scene in 1982 in which Dita Kronon was killed. Each step in the series appears in an italic sans-serif type, and each anticipates the knowledge that two detectives, retired cop Tim Brodie and ex-FBI agent Evon Miller, will encounter when learning in 2008 about what happened in 1982.

Turow’s second decision was to explore the truth of Dita’s death through those two detectives. Evon now heads security for the Kronon family business, which son Hal now runs; and Hal has directed her to prove that Paul Gianis was involved in the killing of his sister. For that killing, Cass Gianis pled guilty, has served his sentence, and is now eligible to be released from jail. By his strategy, it is clear that Hal wishes to scuttle Paul’s run for mayor.

However, I would have preferred Turow convey this story through the Gianis family itself, especially through such an interesting person as Paul. Except…he couldn’t have done that, because of the surprises he has in store for the reader about the past relationships between the two families. (Paul already knows them.) And the result is that as we move into the novel, the story, unfortunately, becomes more about the revelation of those surprises—as they are timed to coincide with the detective’s and the reader’s gradual understanding of what led to Dita’s death. We therefore move away from the mayoral race and the political texture—and, more significantly, away from the complex family relationships—that would have enriched this novel.

Which means that for me this potential literary novel about family and politics has lowered itself to the level of a crime novel. It has also left the intimacy of the two families to concentrate on the perspectives of two outsiders. The author does make an effort to enrich both Tim and Evon, but they are loners and not especially interesting. Tim is an elderly widower of about 80 who continuously mourns his dead wife, and Evon is a lesbian of 50 who is trying to flee her clinging lover Heather. A lack of tension between these two detectives also serves to flatten their characters.

The heart of this crime novel lies in the title, with the significant action revolving around the identical twins, Paul and Cass. Yes, Cass has confessed and gone to jail for the crime. But was he truly guilty? And, if not, why did he confess? Could it be Paul who was guilty? Or Lidia? Whose blood was actually found on the scene? Or could the killer be someone else?

We learn a lot about DNA, blood samples, fingerprints, and plastic surgery—subjects, note, that belong more to crime novels than to literature. Turow also leaves aside the issue of justice, why and how a possibly innocent man was convicted of murder. (And, until late, why he confessed.) Instead, the emphasis is on whether or not he is guilty, not on the injustice if he is not—which certainly should be an emphasis for an author with literary ambitions.

Turow acknowledges in an Afterward that identical twins were born into his own family (although one died at birth), and the idea of such twins has always fascinated him, especially the love relationship that develops between them. And certainly here he has explored that relationship, what each twin will do for the other. But when he explores it within the context of a crime, rather than its overall effect on family relationships, he has for me lowered his literary sights.

Yes, the author has tried to dress up the relationship by creating two Greek families and recalling the legend of Castor (Cass) and Pollux (Paul), and how the two were conceived. He claims that he has embroidered their legendary fate to create his story here; but it comes across to me as window-dressing to enrich the identical twin theme—albeit provocative window-dressing when you realize the Greek legend. But the result is that the intricacy of the crime’s solution is overwhelmed by this identical twin theme and the self-sacrifice it entails.

And we, in turn, are less involved in the solution to Dita’s murder than in the decision of the twins as a result of their love relationship. Indeed, that decision has very little to do with the crime’s solution, which is the supposed point of this novel. On the other hand, the twin’s love and support of each other does not bring one back to the complex family relationship. Rather, it is a thing apart, from both the two families and the crime itself.

Turow knows how to establish complex family relationships and how to structure a slow revelation of those relationships, as well as how to explore the inside workings of our justice system, particularly in the courtroom. But here he has let the needs of a thriller overwhelm the stories of both families. One will, as a result, approach future Turow novels expecting entertainment rather than a deeper exploration of justice. And expect to witness the external repercussions of love, such as the self-sacrifices here, rather than explore its internal workings—of the pain, for example, felt by these characters for what they did. (January, 2017)

The Whites, by Harry Brandt (Richard Price)

This multi-level mystery novel from 2015 is true literature in every sense. It begins as a police procedural that establishes the bono fides of Billy Graves, a side-tracked police sergeant now assigned to the Night Watch in Manhattan. It is also a portrait of a once-heralded police team, the Wild Geese, whose members still love and support each other, even after some have left the force.

Interwoven also is the story of Milton Ramos, a renegade cop out to extract revenge for the personal injustices which life has dealt him. The ending, moreover, relies on a solution that is a classic of the mystery genre, and then humanizes that solution. And, finally, helping this work to a truly literary level is the moral issue raised by that solution in the minds and souls of characters whom both we as readers and Billy himself have become comfortable with.

The novel works on all levels. We are especially close to Billy and his wife Carmen, both of whom have endured tragedy in their past. They both love each other and are protective of each other. And Billy also remains especially close to four former policemen who were members of the Wild Geese. There is Pavlicek, now a real estate baron; Redman, now a funeral director; Whelan, now a building superintendent; and Yasmeen, now a campus security chief. Each will play a key role in this novel, as well as exemplify the ties of police brotherhood.

The title, The Whites, refers to the criminals the police have pursued obsessively but have failed to catch, not unlike the white whale that Ahab pursued. It is an ironic designation in terms of color (not race), but it also reflects the complexity of police duty and the frequent moral issues that are raised. The basic moral issue raised here is: should the guilty be punished? But also, should the past be forgotten? And: what is the nature of true justice, and who has the right to deliver that justice? It is a moral issue that is examined in all great literature, and here Price as Brandt is reaching for those heights—and achieving them.

But morality does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in the actions of human beings; and these human beings, in literature, need to exist in a specific world. In this case it is the island of Manhattan, yes, but it is also Manhattan at night, and even more significant it is the felony crime scene in Manhattan at night and the human beings responsible for catching the criminals in the name of justice. This is why the policemen are the prime movers of this novel, and why Price as Brandt has made such an effort to show us the cruelty that they confront, the frustration they often feel, and the camaraderie that keeps them going.

This camaraderie, indeed, is a key element of this novel, both for the resulting interaction it causes and for the humanization it brings to men whose blue uniform often makes all of them seem alike. As Kakutani writes in the Times: [Brandt’s] “ability to map his characters’ inner lives—all the dreams and memories and wounds that make them tick—results in people who become as vivid to us as real-life relatives or friends.”

And Billy Graves is the first to have any vulnerabilities. His police career was detoured before the start of this novel, when a bullet he fired at a criminal hit an innocent boy, and he became fodder for the tabloid press. This resulted in initial assignments to dead-end posts; but he has finally earned recognition, and been placed in charge of the Night Watch. However, his private life is also in travail, because his first wife had abandoned him after the shooting scandal and left him with two young sons. Now, he is married to Carmen, a nurse and a temperamental woman whom he loves but does not always understand.

And while we realize that Billy is a good man at heart, we begin reading about another cop, Milton Ramos, who also lost a wife and is left with a young daughter. But he reacts to his unfortunate situation very differently from how Billy does, and seeks revenge on someone for some unknown reason. And we sense he will confront Billy at the novel’s climax. As we follow Billy through his routine investigations, however, and watch as a new and violent crime confronts him with memories of his past, with his own white—and also reunites him with his colleagues of the past—this building confrontation with Ramos moves from the background to the foreground, drawing the reader into this novel even more, although we do not know what will prompt the climactic confrontation.

What is not clear to me is why Price chose a pseudonym for this novel. Is it to be part of a series? Is it the police aspect that makes it different from his other works? He dedicates it, in part, to a Carl Brandt. Is that a family member or a friend, perhaps a policeman, whom he wishes to recognize? Perhaps the most reasonable difference to be found in this novel is that it does not focus on a specific location in sociological terms, as in his previous novels, but rather on individuals in psychological terms. But why would this shift prompt him to use a pen name? In any event, the reason does not really matter.

This reader will continue to pursue the work of Richard Price. While he has his dedicated followers, his work has thus fear not entered the contemporary literary canon. Perhaps because of his subject matter, the underside, the criminal side, of daily life. But the underdogs of his novels—victims, pursuers, and perpetrators—are worthy subjects that we in our comfortable reading chairs tend to forget. And Price stands out because he portrays these people, even the most villainous, like Ramos here, as human beings. And he helps us realize that there are often reasons why they are what they are. (March, 2016)

Horn of Africa, by Philip Caputo

This 1980 work is a novel of adventure, and also a work of literature. From the very first pages, it drew me into its world. First, because of narrator newspaperman Charlie Gage’s point of view; he is a burnt-out case and full of guilt. The guilt is both for the story he will tell and for his role in the deaths of men with whom he shared a mission. And, second, this novel drew me in with its creation of a vivid, tangible foreign world, first that of Cairo, Egypt, and then of a stress-filled crossing of African deserts into the mountains of Ethiopia.

This is the early text that drew me into Caputo’s world, as narrated by Gage: “This story may be an exorcism of sorts; but it is not an apology for the things we did and the things we allowed him to do out there….Certainly we would have been indicted if everything had happened in a place where lawyers and judges stage the little dumbshows we call justice; but it all took place in the empty desert in the midst of a revolution….Each eventually dispensed its own form of justice, crude and unfair, but forms of justice nevertheless. The last few days on the desert were the worse, racking us with agonies more exquisite that could be inflicted by the worst prison in the world. The wilderness, however, was not entirely merciless; it allowed me to escape, to bear witness, and to experience a kind of expiation. The professional moralists, from their pulpits, from their editorial offices, from their speaker’s dias…might say it was not a genuine expiation and call for investigating commissions, inquiries, punishments. Let them chatter. We paid whatever debt we owed. Nordstrand and Moody paid all a man can pay, Nordstrand with interest because his liability was the greatest. I took his last installment and closed his account.”

That is what hooked me. This is Greene territory, Conrad territory, the territory of moral novelists exploring the roles of consience and justice in a violent, unjust world.

The mission, called Operation Atropos, is to bring armaments to Moslem Ethiopian rebels who wish to carve out a piece of Ethiopia and create a separate country called Bejaya. Charlie Gage, the American newspaperman, is recruited in Cairo by an ambitious American agent called Colfax, who seeks to make a name for himself. Colfax also recruits a level-headed but ineffectual English officer named Moody, who is to be in charge, and a dominating, headstrong, powerful soldier named Nordstrand, who is to provide the muscle and, as he himself believes, the leadership. Nordstrand is clearly the novel’s major character. After delivering the arms, he sees himself as the leader of the new nation, which is why he exerts brutal control over everyone he deals with.

What complements such conflict among the characters is the physical detail, whether in the streets of Cairo or the desert outside, whether in the villages or valleys of Africa, its sands or its swamps, its mountains or ravines, and whether one treks in the heat of day or the chill of night. The trio must also deal with the loyalty and the fickleness of both the natives they encounter and the rebels they join. Indeed, one so marvels at the physical detail that one is convinced that Caputo himself must have explored that same rugged terrain and lived the same exotic life of the African native. Because he makes that world come so alive.

The novel moves back and forth between its two strengths, character and description. And more than a reader expects, straight narration plays a major role, both forays into the past and extended descriptions of the present. Particularly effective are the constant physical and human obstacles when crossing deserts, confronting armed men, and hiking into the mountains. This vivid environment ranges from thornbushes to mosquitos, from swamp muck to endless sand, and includes even the sounds of snorting camels and jingling harnesses, plus the darkness, the burning heat, and the exhaustion. And yet…the narrative sustains our interest, even as little else happens.

In another complication, the arms the trio expects to deliver to the rebels do not arrive; but the trio continue on, hoping the promise to deliver those arms will justify their trek into rebel territory. That they will not be held for ransom by Jima, the rebel leader who awaits the weapons. Which reverts to the second strength of the novel, the relationships among the trio and their local contacts, Murrah and Osman, as well as with Jima. All of which comes across in both violent disputes and moments of introspection and doubt. Particularly effective is the intimidation by Nordstrand, whether he is trying to dominate narrator Gage, officer Moody, or the local natives.

Nordstrand is a violent schemer who seeks to control every obstacle he meets, and who does not care about the pain he inflicts on others. He meets an ironic fate however, when his installation into a native tribe, which he seeks as the first step in dominating them, results in an infection that weakens him and begins his downfall. This is the character Caputo wants the reader to remember. How his maniacal ambition brings his own destruction.

But Caputo also wants to demonstrate the foolhardiness of the entire operation. First, the foolish effort by Colfax to create the operation; and then, on the scene, the muscle that Nordstrand uses to control his colleagues, and the even greater violence he resorts to, murder, in order to take over, first, the revolution and then the new country. With the guilty conscience of narrator Gage underscoring that evil by allowing it to happen.

In the novel’s climax, the rebels capture a vital town and then the more powerful government forces bombard and destroy it. The horror of warfare is brilliantly portrayed here, and leads each character to his fate—a fate we have been prepared for. Except we learn how the various characters die, and where the responsibility lies for their deaths.

To sum up, this brilliant novel blends adventure, morality, and justice. It brings alive both its characters and its African setting. It contrasts the brutal Nordstrand, the “civilized” Moody, and the pliant Gage, along with the pragmatic, deceitful, and violent natives. I rarely use a novel’s blurb to help sum it up, but this blurb works: “Set in a bleak landscape where none of the signposts of civilization as we know it exist, [this novel] exposes the dark side of human nature—the side that, freed of all restraints, acts without pity, without conscience, without remorse.” (May, 2015)

The Quality of Mercy, by Barry Unsworth

This fascinating novel is a powerful sequel to Sacred Hunger, which had earlier won the Booker Prize. It is not necessary to have read that earlier novel to appreciate this 2011 novel, but it does help one to understand the depths of this work if one has done so.

And by that I mean the depths of the main character, Erasmus Kemp, who was the single-minded villain of that first novel, as he pursued and saw killed his first cousin, Matthew Paris, for what he considered acts of piracy and mutiny, but which his cousin and the reader saw as acts of mercy. Namely, taking over a slave ship owned by Kemp’s father, a ship whose captain had ordered sick slaves to be thrown overboard to their death.

I had objected to the portrayal of Kemp at the end of Sacred Hunger, for it evoked a note of self-awareness in this cruel villain that I felt the author had not prepared me for. But now I believe this self-awareness was always there, because Unsworth has made Kemp not only the main character of this novel but also even more aware of what he, Kemp, might term as shortcomings but which the reader sees as a reluctant identification with these men he considers his inferiors.

This sensitivity arises when he confronts Michael Sullivan, one of the crewmen from Sacred Hunger, who was involved in what Kemp called mutiny and piracy; and again, when a poor youth, the miner Michael Borden, sees through what Kemp calls a generous offer for a piece of land the youth owns. Indeed, even the woman Kemp loves, Jane Ashton, detects a latent compassion in him that she believes she can develop if she marries him.

Kemp thus develops into a complex figure. He wants to play a major role in developing British industry—to his own advantage, of course, but also, he claims, to that of the workers and his country. And his single-mindedness remains, meaning he will do this by fair means or foul. Even love-fixed Jane is transfixed by this determination, while less fixed on the means he will use.

It would seem that the author wishes his title, The Quality of Mercy, to apply to Kemp. For it is mercy he shows to both Sullivan and Borden, when he unexpectedly acknowledges their needs. And this response, I suggest, shows that Unsworth wants his reader to extend such mercy to Kemp as well. In fact, he also may be suggesting that this kind of determined but compassionate industrial leader is what this small island relied on to reach its greatness.

On the other hand, and I nearly missed this, the greatest quality of mercy Unsworth seems to show here is toward the slaves themselves. But to me that is less interesting. Because it is so obious. Whereas to apply it to Kemp adds a complexity to his character that enriches this work as literature. I would note that John Vernon in his New York Times review preferred that the author had kept Kemp’s character more simple. He writes, “Kemp was perfect—a tortured monster of obsessiveness.” I obviously disagree.

There are really four stories here at the start of the novel, each one so interesting that we move quite willingly from one to the other. Indeed, I was so confident in the author’s professionalism that I knew eventually these four stories would come together. The first story is that of Sullivan, the crew member who joined in the mutiny, was caught and transported back to England in chains, and then fortuitously escapes from prison and becomes determined to travel north into Durham coal country in order to inform the family of a shipboard colleague that their son has died.

The second story is that of the Borden family in Durham. John the father and his three sons, especially Michael, are fated to work in the mines but dream of escaping that harsh world. The third story is that of Frederick Ashton and his sister Jane, the brother being an active abolitionist determined to abolish slavery in all of England. And the final story, of course, is that of Erasmus Kemp, who brings these stories together, first by suing to receive compensation for the drowned slaves on his father’s lost ship, and then by both his pursuit of Jane and his effort to purchase and modernize the coal mine up north in which the Borden family works.

The reader easily identifies with Sullivan, Michael Borden, and Frederick and Jane Ashton. These are all good people. And Kemp’s interaction with each of them earns him the reader’s respect for a certain integrity, even if not their full sympathy. Indeed, one can detect both sympathy and fascination on the part of the author for this character he has created, so much so that one can foresee still another sequel, this one based on the tension that has been set up between Kemp and Jane Ashton, as she tries to instill in him a greater awareness of the needs of the working poor.

Despite it’s title, the underlying theme of this novel is the rights of property. First, are slaves property? That is what Sacred Hunger was about, and that is what Frederick Ashton is all about. That they are not. And it is also about the workers in the Durham mines. Are they, in effect, the property of the mine owners, since they have no say in the terms of their duties, their wages, their working conditions, or their future lives.

On the other hand, one critic says this is a novel about justice. And this is valid, for the administration of justice revolves around two key trials that are depicted toward the end. But these trials do depend on property rights, and this is the immediate theme that drives Unsworth’ novel, under the overall literary theme of justice.

Unsworth manages to resolve these property issues to a large degree, enough to bring a legitimate resolution to this novel, even if some of its ramifications are left open-ended. Which, as I said, does leave the door open to another sequel. Not that I would require one, but I would certainly read it, for Unsworh has the enviable talent of being able to explore moral and social issues from a richly created past. In the meantime, I will happily search out his other highly praised novels. (January, 2015)