Book Review: False Witness by Karin Slaughter
By John ValeriJuly 20, 2021
Karin Slaughter is at the pinnacle of a career that shows no signs of slowing. The stats speak for themselves: Twenty-one novels published in 120 countries with more than 35 million copies sold. She’s alternated between equally successful series and standalone books and has both in development for on-screen adaptation—the Grant County and Will Trent sagas for television and Pieces of Her at Netflix. A perennial New York Times bestseller, Slaughter has collaborated with the likes of Lee Child and been nominated for accolades including the Barry, CWA Dagger, Edgar, and Macavity Awards. Her newest, July’s False Witness, is a worthy addition to the author’s impressive canon.
Summer 1998: Young Callie is resigned to another night with Trevor Waleski, an endearing if somewhat exasperating ten-year-old who has already gone through his share of neighborhood babysitters. Riddled by aches and pains and emotional turmoil, Callie is self-medicating with the contents of the Waleski’s bar when she makes a disturbing discovery: a hidden camera aimed at the living room couch—the same couch where Trevor’s father, Buddy, insists on defiling her (an act that she confuses for love). When Buddy arrives home and is confronted with the evidence of his misdeeds, he attacks Callie with the intent to kill. Desperate acts of self-defense leave Buddy mortally wounded, however, before a beaten and bloodied Callie calls her older sister, Harleigh (“Leigh”), to help clean up the mess as if it never happened.
Spring 2021: Defense attorney Leigh Collier is attending her teenage daughter’s school play when a call from one of the law firm’s partners summons her to the office for an emergency meeting. Despite being new to the practice, she’s been tapped to defend a wealthy young man accused of one rape and suspected of multiple others. Only when she meets the client, Andrew Tenant, does she realize who he really is—Trevor Waleski—and why he chose her as replacement counsel; though asleep that fateful night, Andrew somehow knows exactly what Leigh and her sister did to his father and how they staged his death as a disappearance. Consequently, he expects an acquittal at all costs. Otherwise, Leigh and Callie’s secrets will become public fodder.
Given the threat against them, Leigh is forced to involve Callie—a longtime opioid addict with a history of estrangement—in her quest to gain the upper hand and keep their sordid past buried. Not only would the truth ruin Leigh’s career but further jeopardize the sanctity of her family life, which has already suffered a separation from her husband. Callie, too, has ample motivation to remain in the shadows rather than the spotlight. Andrew proves a worth adversary, however, possessing seemingly inexplicable knowledge of the sisters’ crime(s) and cover-up as well as a failsafe should they go rogue; further, he has both a money-hungry private investigator and an overzealous fiancée to do his bidding as he prepares for trial.
Slaughter shifts perspectives between the sisters in alternating chapters of substantial length; this allows her to develop extremely rich inner lives for Leigh and Callie to counteract the more action-oriented elements of the book (of which there are plenty). It also exemplifies each character’s continual conflict(s) and the different manifestations of grief and guilt that each feels in the aftermath of their traumatic childhoods, which were not only sullied by Buddy Waleski but acts of familial abuse and neglect. While such themes are timeless, the book—which incorporates Covid and its influence on addiction, mental illness, and poverty (among other maladies)—is largely of the moment, offering a somber reflection on the pandemic’s perilous, and ongoing, impact.
False Witness is both terrifying and terrifyingly real—and the scariest thing about it may just be how good Karin Slaughter really is. Book after book, she manages to keep outdoing herself, gifting readers with sublime works of fiction that reflect the complexities of an uncertain world while also offering moments of unmitigated hope and unexpected humor. More than a crime story or a Covid story, this is a sister story about two women whose sacrifices are also their salvation. You may find it hard to read at times, but you won’t be able to put it down.