This powerful and gripping new thriller from Karin Slaughter illustrates not only that Slaughter is an accomplished and timely crime writer but also that she knows how to reflect on a serious contemporary issue while retaining the power to entertain in darkly mesmeric style. The problem with a lot of new domestic noirs is that they lose sight of the themes or the suspense, not so False Witness, a stand alone that will have you bleeding empathy for the sisters at the heart of this tale that pricks society’s conscience in the age of #MeToo.
This poignant and, sometimes frightening tale opens in Atlanta during the summer of 1998. Sisters Callie and Leigh babysit for Linda and Buddy Weleski, their family need the money. The boy, Trevor, is highly strung, while his mother is in hospital, the tension in the household, that emanates from his violent and abusive father, ramps up along with the fear. When it’s Callie’s turn to look after Trevor, they are both on edge when Buddy returns home that night. Callie has just settles Trevor down for the night when Buddy is on her, pawing the schoolgirl, this has been going on for two years. Callie has found a hidden camera which Buddy uses to film the rapes, when he finds out she knows what he’s been doing he has to make sure she doesn’t tell anybody. The ensuing assault is even more frenzied than usual. Buddy is about to kill Callie when she manages to grab a knife and stab him, Buddy lies bleeding to death on the floor. Callie and Leigh make sure Trevor is safe and not going to interrupt them, then they begin the clean up. When Buddy is reported missing the police note he had serious debts. So when the sisters stick to the story that they don’t know where he is no one has trouble believing he just upped and walk out on his wife and son. Callie and Leigh’s lives take very different paths over the next twenty years, Leigh can move on but Callie is trapped by the past.
Leigh has become a defence attorney, albeit a minor cog at Bradley, Canfield and Marks. So when she gets a call from senior partner Cole Bradley cutting her in on a big case it comes as a surprise. New client, Andrew Tenant, has asked for her specifically after firing his highly competent and experienced counsel. Tenant is accused of kidnap and serious sexual assault by three women, his only alibi for the attacks is provided by his girlfriend, Sydney Winslow. Leigh recognises Tenant, he was previously know as Trevor and while he claims to be innocent Callie knows this reunion can’t be coincidence. When things begin to get tough Leigh begins to see behind Tenant’s mask, he hints that he knows what happened in the past. Callie has a strained relationship with her daughter Maddy since she broke up with her husband – they are now all in danger.
There are a number of high points about this novel beyond the elegantly constructed plot. Slaughter demonstrates it is possible to write a novel set during the Covid period and referencing the ‘new normal’ circumstances without slowing down the action or distracting our attention from the story, other writers should take note.
Slaughter is the author of 28 novels, eBooks and novellas including two series, Grant County and the Will Trent Atlanta mysteries, False Witness is as good as any I’ve read. This is an author at the height of her powers, consummate storytelling, nerve jangling danger on every page and fully fleshed out characters, particularly the brave and sad sisters. Less flash than a lot of novel dealing with abuse this thought provoking read has a twist or two but the gritty realism is what strikes home. If you like this check out Slaughter’s novels The Good Daughter and Piece of Her, a TV series is currently in production for Netflix starring Toni Collette and in a similar vein don’t miss Laura Lippman’s superb new novel Dream Girl.
Review by Paul Burke
Harper Collins, Hardback, ISBN 978000830350, out now