Harper Lee Prize Winner Michael Connelly Joins Panel Comparing ‘Fifth Witness’ with ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
A ceremony honoring best-selling crime writer Michael Connelly for receiving the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction last week included a panel discussion comparing the lawyers and stories of Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird with Connelly’s The Fifth Witness. The Fifth Witness received the second annual prize, which recognizes a book that underscores the positive role lawyers play in society, from the ABA Journal and the University of Alabama School of Law.
The moderator of the panel was Ron Charles, deputy editor of the Washington Post’s books section. Panelists included best-selling crime novelists Linda Fairstein and Lisa Scottoline; Thane Rosenbaum, novelist and director of the Forum on Law, Culture and Society at Fordham University; and Allen Pusey, managing editor of the ABA Journal.
Charles began the discussion by noting how law has been a fixture in literature. “Shakespeare mentions law more than any other profession, except for prostitution,” he said, as audience members laughed. “Shakespeare gives his best advice when he says good counselors lack no clients.”
And it was a good counselor, To Kill a Mockingbird’s protagonist, Atticus Finch, who panelists said has been inspiring people to study law since the book was published more than 50 years ago. Gregory Peck’s Finch was even named the greatest hero in American film in 2003, Charles said.
“He’s patient, insightful, honorable, wise, principled,” Charles said. “Atticus is the kind of lawyer many people think they want to be.”
Scottoline said she remembers the first time she read To Kill a Mockingbird, and “what stayed with me is that it’s a story of a father and daughter,” and Finch’s lesson of empathy. Although Mickey Haller, the maverick lawyer in The Fifth Witness who works out of the backseat of his Lincoln Town Car, “looks so difference from Atticus … he still has that rock bottom identification [with] and emphathy for the underdog, and I think that’s what drives To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Many of Finch’s moral qualities are unsustainable for modern-day law graduates, however, Fairstein said. “I don’t think there are that many people with the moral compass that he has, to keep that throughout the practice,” she said. “If you spend a career in a large city like New York doing just criminal defense work, I think it’s often hard to keep that compass. You end up representing a lot of people who are guilty, and you don’t always have the opportunity to take the stand and make the stand that Finch had.
“But I think he’s the ideal for all of us in the profession,” she added, “and I think he’s reflected in characters like Haller and in a lot of other characters in crime fiction. I think his traits both for defense attorneys and for prosecutors are really important points to keep in the fore.”
Still, “there is also something unreal about him,” said Rosenbaum, pointing out how Finch is paid in potatoes. “He’s the guy who’s very willing at the end of the book to prosecute his son for murder. There’s virtue there, or insanity. There something surreal, unreal about him, and I think everyone is gunning for that, but it doesn’t hold up anymore in the modern world.”
There is also the reality of polls showing that lawyers rank low when it comes to the honesty and ethics of their profession, Charles said.
Haller represents a more normalized view of a lawyer today, Scottoline said. “He isn’t bad or good, what he is is real,” she said. “He rings true as a person. So it isn’t lawyer as Perry Mason, cardboard figure. If you think back to Perry Mason, you don’t know anything about his family, he didn’t have a girlfriend, he didn’t have a daughter.”
Connelly said his books are designed to make Haller seem “real.” They usually “start off with an anecdotal episode where Mickey does something where you have to question his moral compass and which way it’s pointing,” he said. “But if you stick with him and ride through the story, you’ll eventually see that he does have some of those aspects of Atticus Finch.
“When I first started writing him five, six years ago, I kept thinking the phrase ‘Atticus Finch with a ponytail,’” he added. “He’s a modern lawyer who’s sardonic and cynical and knows how to play the system but for an ultimate good.”
Charles asked the panel who, then, will be inspired to study law by Mickey Haller?
Fairstein said Haller’s skill, street smarts and cleverness will appeal to young lawyers.
Connelly added that Haller’s command of his world is also inspiring. “Someone in that kind of control is someone … that we have a connection with,” he said. “Somehow this guy connects to lawyers and nonlawyers alike.”
Pusey added that “the fact that he doesn’t care makes him a better lawyer. I think it makes him a great lawyer. Mickey Haller is the guy I would want, rather than Atticus. Atticus had no control in that courtroom. As much respect as he had, he had no control.”
Pusey and the other panelists also spoke about where crime fiction is moving in the next 20 years. Scottoline said she expects to see more diversity. “I notice that Mickey has a mother who is Mexican,” she said. “That’s not Atticus Finch.
“Another thing that’s happening with e-publishing and people who are publishing originally in an e-format is that there’s more of a diversity of experience represented in fiction,” she added, “and that’s a great thing.”
The panel concluded with Connelly offering advice for lawyers who want to write a novel.
“If someone feels there’s a book in them, it’s got to be from a personal experience,” he said. “These are character studies. Yes, there are the trappings of genre in them, but it all starts from a character.”