The world of foreclosures is not exactly tailor-made for engaging fiction. Unless you're Michael Connelly. Author of The Lincoln Lawyer (now playing at a theater near you) and more than a dozen other best-sellers, Connelly seized on the foreclosure crisis as the setting for his latest thriller, The Fifth Witness.
"I write very contemporary novels set in the time they come out," says Connelly. "This is obviously a big financial catastrophe in this country, so it kind of stands out."
He also had personal reasons for choosing the topic. "When I was a kid, my father was in the construction industry, which is very volatile," Connelly told AOL Real Estate. "We just avoided foreclosure a few times. It was deeply humiliating when they would have to come pin something on your door about a public auction of your house." He says now, "It kind of left a scar."
The fourth Connelly novel to feature defense attorney Mickey Haller, The Fifth Witness finds Haller transitioning his flagging criminal defense practice in Los Angeles into the growing field of foreclosure defense. In particular, Connelly was drawn to the phenomenon of foreclosure mills, due in part to heavy local news coverage of Florida foreclosure mill attorney David Stern, whose downfall was chronicled by AOL Real Estate in "Foreclosure King Falls from Grace."
From his home base in Tampa, Fla., Connelly has seen first-hand how the foreclosure crisis has ravaged previously stable neighborhoods. "I kind of zeroed in on that as a place where I could build drama," he explains. "The idea of the banks hiding behind a mill that will do the dirty work for them was very interesting to me."
He decided to make foreclosure mills a central topic in his book after a lawyer friend told him the story of checking the standing of a foreclosing entity with a bank and noticing that the expiration of the notary seal was 2013. "He knew that in Florida they were only given for five-year segments," Connelly says, "so he knew that the seal had been given in 2008. But the documents were dated in 2007. So he knew it was a fraud."
Connelly's story takes off when attorney Mickey Haller's first foreclosure client is charged with the murder of an executive at the lender that has foreclosed on her home. Another character in the book runs a foreclosure mill called ALOFT and becomes an additional suspect in the murder case, due to the victim's threat to pull his institution's business from ALOFT.
Connelly says he tried to capture some of the "really large conspiratorial type things where it's all a cabal between all the banks to keep a revolving, never-ending foreclosure business going" in his novel, although the story finally settles into the familiar territory of a criminal investigation.
In his research, Connelly learned that not every homeowner who is foreclosed on is a victim. "It's easy to jump on faceless institutions as the villain, but it's not as simple as that when you get down into it, he says, adding, "I love the kind of wilderness of mirrors aspect of this."
The "blizzard of paperwork" that accompanied many recent foreclosures made it hard to document many deals correctly, he says. His advice to foreclosed homeowners, based on what he learned writing The Fifth Witness: "You better check [the paperwork] pretty closely, because it might be fraudulent."
As for his own real estate experiences, Connelly has been lucky enough not to have been party to a foreclosure as an adult, but he is familiar with unhappy home-sale circumstances. He sold a home in January for 25 percent less than he thought it was worth "just so I could move on," he says. "At least I sold it more than I bought it for eight years ago. I feel like I broke even."
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