What does it take for someone to kill?
That question is front and center in Karin Slaughter’s tense mystery, False Witness.
Leigh and her younger sister, Callie, were raised by Phil, a single mother who would make Mommy Dearest look like Mother Teresa. With funds scarce, a teenage Leigh takes a job babysitting for Trevor, until the boy’s father, Buddy, makes a pass at her. Callie picks up the gig with devastating results. Buddy seduces Callie and the two frequently engage in sexual acts on the living room couch. (During these encounters, Trevor is given a dose of his “sleepy medicine,” Nyquill.)
One evening Callie discovers hidden on a shelf a camera that is focused on the couch. Buddy has been making extra money filming 14 year-old Callie and then showing the porno films to a who’s who lineup of “upstanding” town citizens – including a coach, a car salesman, a deli worker, and a dental assistant. Furious, Callie lashes out at Buddy, grabbing a steak knife and slashing his upper thigh. When she realizes Buddy is seriously injured, she calls Leigh and her older sister comes to her rescue.
Fast forward more than 20 years. Leigh is now a defense attorney working for the prestigious law firm, Bradley, Canfield, & Marks. She is separated from her husband, Walter, and the two co-parent their daughter, Maddy. Already traumatized by the sexual abuse she endured, as well as by what she did to Buddy, Callie suffered a serious injury to her neck. She became addicted to pain killers, then heroin. Leigh and Walter paid for Callie to enter rehab, but she stayed just one day. Mostly, she’s lived on the streets, earning a little money working for Dr. Jerry, a local vet, where she can oftentimes score drugs when she can’t get heroin.
Leigh is at Maddy’s school watching a performance of the The Music Man, when she gets a phone call from her firm’s senior partner, Cole Bradley. “I’ve got a delicate matter that requires your immediate attention,” he tells her. One of the firm’s clients needs representation and has requested Leigh. When she arrives at the law office, Leigh understands. The client is Trevor, Buddy’s son, who now goes by the name of Andrew. And he truly is a chip off of the old block, being charged with brutally assaulting a young woman, and possibly guilty of several other sexual crimes.
Andrew’s mother Linda, came from a wealthy family that owned several successful car dealerships around Atlanta. When she married Buddy, Linda’s parents disowned her. But after Buddy disappeared, she was able to reconcile with her family. Andrew now works for the company.
It doesn’t take long for Leigh to understand that Andrew knows what really happened to his father. He’s out for revenge, intent on bringing down both Leigh and Callie. If she wants to prevent Andrew from releasing the tapes that will humiliate Callie and implicate both of them in Buddy’s death, she has to make sure the jury brings back a verdict of not guilty. In the meantime, Andrew intends to keep killing, and every new victim is on Leigh.
Slaughter began work on False Witness in March, 2020, in the midst of Covid-19. She incorporates the pandemic into the story without delving into politics. Leigh and others wear masks, observe social distancing, and use hand sanitizer. Even the witness stand in court is cleansed between occupants. But the focus remains on the mystery, how Leigh and Callie will save themselves and those they love without succumbing to Andrew’s demands.
In an author’s note at the end of the book, Slaughter says she never wants to interfere with the story she’s telling by climbing onto a “soap box.” She doesn’t wade into politics with regard to the pandemic, but the narrative speaks for itself on another topic – childhood abuse that can lead to PTSD, trauma, depression, and, in Callie’s case, substance abuse. That’s what will stay with many readers after turning the last page. How many more children suffer fates like Callie, more than likely exacerbated during the pandemic? And what can we, as a society do about it?
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