Review of “False Witness” by Karin Slaughter 

Most women who have been sexually abused at one time or other in their lives (and many more have been victims than openly relate their stories) will recognize the patterns of abusers and their victims in this book. For those who prefer warnings such as “This Book Has Triggers!,” consider yourself very justifiably warned.

At the end of the story, in an Author’s Note, Slaughter tells readers that she wants her fiction to hold up a mirror to society, and as she has said elsewhere, to address in particular the pervasive culture of violence against women. Major themes of this book also include the agonizing culture of addiction, and the changes wrought by Covid-19. Importantly, she writes:

“Covid has exposed the ever-widening chasm between the haves and have-nots, spotlighted the housing crisis and food insecurity, focused attention of the lack of proper funding for schools, hospitals and elder care, exposed a bankruptcy of trust in our government institutions, exacerbated the horrendous treatment of inmates in our jails and prisons, exponentially worsened xenophobic, misogynistic, and racist hate speech, heightened racial inequalities, and as usual, has grossly over-burdened the lives of women; all topics that I’ve attempted to touch on within the pages of the book you now hold in your hands.”

She does indeed do all of this. So while the book is very well written as all of her books are, it is extremely difficult to read because all of the painful injustice, especially that experienced by women, will resonate with so many readers.

The story begins in the summer of 1998, when we meet some of the main characters. Most of the book however takes place in 2021, when we learn the repercussions of the events that took place earlier.

Leigh Collier is a defense attorney in a high-priced Atlanta law firm, divorced from Walter, whom she still loves, and with whom she remains friends. They have a 16-year-old daughter Maddy, who lives with Walter in the suburbs. As the present-day story begins, Leigh has just been handed a rape case that goes to trial in eight days. The 33-year old man accused of rape, Andrew Tenant, suddenly dropped his previous lawyer and specifically asked for Leigh. Because his wealthy family had ties to the top name partner in Leigh’s firm, she is told by her boss that she must take this case.

Leigh has defended rapists before. She explains that “as a defense attorney, you negotiated for unlawful restraint or a lesser charge that would keep your client off the sex offender registry and out of jail and then you went home and took the longest, hottest shower you could tolerate to blast off the stink.”

She assured her boss, Cole Bradley, before even knowing who the defendant was, that she could deal with it. “I’ve handled dozens of assault cases over the years. The majority of my clients are factually guilty. The prosecutor has to prove those facts beyond a reasonable doubt. You pay me a hell of a lot of money to find that doubt.”

And in fact, it is money that makes all the difference. Leigh mused that she rarely considered guilt or innocence: “Most of her clients were guilty as hell. Some of them were nice. Some were assholes. None of it mattered because justice was blind except when it came to the color green.”

Leigh’s task is ironically made somewhat easier by the unfortunate fact that, as juror studies have shown, in rape trials, jurors tended to be more judgmental toward women. Women are assessed by the way they look and the way they dress. Making matters worse, women are traumatized by feelings of self-blame and shame that affect their performance in court. Men, on the other hand, exude a righteous posture of innocence and outrage over women who “led them on.”

This case is different, however. Not only is Tenant suspected in three other rapes, but Leigh quickly realizes she does in fact know who Andrew is. Worse yet, he knows who she is and seems to know exact details about what she did in the past. As those secrets unfurl, we learn just how dangerous this situation is for Leigh.

Leigh’s sister Callie is also involved. Callie is a self-admitted junkie, and in the course of telling her story Slaughter conveys many facts about the science of addiction, and statistics about users and what they take. Slaughter notes that COVID raised the stakes:

“A lot of people turned to illicit comforts during the pandemic. Jobs were lost. Food was scarce. Kids were starving. The number of overdoses and suicides had gone through the roof. All the politicians who had expressed deep concern about mental health during the lockdowns had shockingly been unwilling to spend money on helping the people who were losing their minds.”

Leigh and Callie understand well the depth of the threat represented by Andrew Tenant. They know that their fates and even their lives, as well as the lives of those they love, depend on whether they can counter the plans made by Andrew, who always seems one step ahead of them.

In fact, the tension is so intense, it took me several days to get through the last few pages of the book. That has never happened to me before!

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins, 2021

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