Surprise Ending

I stopped reading science fiction years ago because none of the scenarios actually made a lick of logical sense, if you thought about them for more than five seconds. Sadly, I’m starting to feel the same way about mystery novels.

Last night I read Michael Connelly’s The Fifth Witness. All the way through, I was thinking, “Wow, this is great! This is real courtroom drama — the kind Erle Stanley Gardner tried to write, and had not the talent to succeed at.” But then, at the very end, the logic of the story teeters and slips and falls sideways into a heap. Be warned: the rest of this post will contain a complete spoiler for the book. If you don’t want it spoiled, please stop reading!

As we near the end of the book, Connelly’s lawyer hero, Mickey Haller, is struggling to get his client acquitted of murder. The trial ends. The case goes to the jury. In short order the jury returns a verdict of Not Guilty. The good guys have triumphed! Except, at the party the defendant throws as a victory celebration, Haller suddenly realizes (based on a thin thread of conjecture) that his client is guilty. She done it.

In order to pull this rabbit out of his hat, Connelly has to do an end run around logic and common sense. The murderer’s actions, seen in this new light, make no sense whatever.

The story, in a nutshell, is this: Lisa Trammell’s house is being foreclosed for non-payment of the mortgage. She starts a crusade against predatory banks, complete with a website and picketers in front of the bank. She hires Haller to defend her against eviction, and he finds that the bank is doing some shady things. It’s clear to everybody that Lisa will lose her house in a year or so, but she has a good lawyer and is gaining celebrity status as a crusader for the little guy.

So what does she do? One morning she equips herself with a hammer and a couple of helium-filled balloons, drops her son off at school, stops at a coffee place and buys a cup of coffee, and then sneaks into a parking garage, hides behind a pillar near the assigned parking space of the vice-president of the bank (whom she has never met, though she knows who he is and blames him for her difficulties), lets go of the balloons so he will see them when he emerges from his car and be distracted — and jumps out and hits him on the head with the hammer.

The idea that the guy will even notice balloons on the ceiling when he gets out of the car is far-fetched, but it’s needed in order to create a seeming contradiction in the physical evidence. Lisa is short, the banker is tall, and the hammer blows are on the top of his head. This could only happen if he were looking up, and there is no apparent reason why he would look up.

After hitting him twice more with the hammer for good measure, Lisa calmly collects and pops the balloons, leaves the parking garage (without being seen by the security cameras), tosses the hammer in some bushes, goes home, and puts on a convincing act of innocence when the police arrive 90 minutes later to take her into custody.

Here we have a woman who is very well organized — and yet she commits a crime of passion. She has no real reason to kill the banker, other than unreasoning fury, and yet she is capable of meticulous planning.

Except, not really. After equipping herself with balloons, which are an essential part of her plan, does she sneak into the parking garage to wait for the banker? No, she goes and gets a cup of coffee first, and then sneaks into the parking garage. We are left to imagine that she is standing behind the pillar with the hammer in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.

Somehow, she manages to avoid getting a drop of blood anywhere on her person while hitting the banker three times with a hammer — except for a drop on the end of one shoelace. And while planning the crime, she foolishly takes the hammer from the tool rack in her garage, leaving a plainly visible gap marked “HAMMER” on the rack.

Since the bank has a restraining order out against her on account of her picketing, she has to figure that sooner or later the police will come and ask questions. So why doesn’t she buy a different hammer, rather than use the one in her garage?

Lying in wait with a cup of coffee and a couple of helium-filled balloons. Come to think of it, if you were lurking behind a pillar in a parking garage adjacent to a busy office building at 8:45 on a weekday morning, wouldn’t you worry that a couple of helium-filled balloons would draw attention to you? And if you were a woman 5’3″ and planning to murder a man who is 6’1″, would a hammer be your weapon of choice? What if he sees you swinging at him and dodges? That would be inconvenient, wouldn’t it? If you have enough presence of mind to equip yourself with balloons, wouldn’t you be likely to come up with a more reliable weapon?

I rest my case.

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