“When sixteen-year-old Hannah Sheraton is arrested for the murder of her stepgrandfather, the chief justice of the California Supreme court, her distraught mother turns to her old college roommate, Josie Baylor-Bates, for help. Josie, once a hot-shot criminal defense attorney, left the fast track behind for a small practice in Hermosa Beach, California. But Hannah Sheraton intrigues her and, when the girl is charged as an adult, Josie cannot turn her back. But the deeper she digs the more Josie realizes that politics, the law and family relationships create a combustible and dangerous situation. When the horrible truth is uncovered it can save Hannah Sheraton or destroy them both.”
That’s the plot summary that caught my attention at a moment when I was sorely in need of a break from the likes of Lee Child, Daniel Silva, Michael Connelly, and Nelson DeMille. (Mostly dark, violent, crime thrillers with male protagonists.) I had set out to find a good courtroom drama with a female lead from an author I hadn’t read before. I landed on my first Rebecca Forster novel, one that delivered a good deal of satisfaction and only modest disappointments. Hostile Witness isn’t perfect, but it’s a solid legal thriller with its own unique vibe and a book that serves up a lesson on an important point of characterization, which is what I’ll be focusing on in this review.
The premise was intriguing enough and the plot sounded compelling. One of my favorite things about Hostile Witness from a story craft standpoint are the two main aspects of backstory that help anchor the plot. The first is that Josie Bates was abandoned by her mother when she was young, and this not surprisingly has left her with some baggage that clouds her objectivity in this case. The second is the reason she’s no longer a hot shot lawyer, which is that prior to the events of this novel Josie won a high profile acquittal for a guilty client who then goes and murders her own children.
Josie’s understandable hangups about the possibility of winning an acquittal for someone else who might very be guilty makes everything that happens in Josie’s defense of this sixteen-year-old all the more engaging. Especially once Josie decides that Hannah Sheraton’s mother may not have her daughter’s best interest at heart and at one point decides that legal emancipation may be a sensible option for Hannah. The author does a good job using Josie’s doubt, insecurity, abandonment issues and also her possibly conflicted motives to raise the personal stakes in a way that makes the already strong plot all the more engaging. It’s a great example of characterization/character backstory and plot working together.
The story that plays out is fast-paced and unfailingly engaging. There are some terrific scenes in the courtroom and some memorable plot developments, which while not always surprising are always interesting and do tighten the screws and drive the plot forward. And to the author’s credit I spent a good deal of the book wondering if Hannah Sheraton might have her lawyer fooled.
One problem for me was that some of the dialogue sounded more like something out of a soap opera than a gritty legal thriller. (Emotionally overwrought, a little over the top, always entertaining but not always particularly convincing.) Sometimes it seemed that the author was more concerned with making her dialogue dramatic than natural sounding, but this isn’t a big deal. The plot moved along at a good clip but turned in its final act on a “discovery” that was cleverly set up but which many readers will see coming from miles away. Still, it’s fun to watch how everything plays out, and there are strong enough red herrings to keep the truth of what happened from feeling too obvious.
As for characters, I found a lot to like in Josie Baylor-Bates, whose unusual height and athleticism and backstory as a volleyball star seemed a great fit for the California beach-town setting. She’s smart and likable in some ways, but I was disappointed that she didn’t do more of her own sleuthing and was generally reactive more than proactive much of the time. (Much of investigative legwork is done by her boyfriend Archer, off stage and usually almost effortlessly it seems.) Josie herself has little to do with bringing about several of key plot developments, including one when a friend of Hannah’s friends breaks into Josie’s house to volunteer key evidence, which made zero sense to me. (Am I missing something? Why not knock at the door?) This seemed a forced effort to create suspense, and the fact that key evidence is almost literally dropped in Josie’s lap seems a bit lazy.
With Josie, I expect I’m not alone in being occasionally put off by whiffs of self-absorbedness that border at times on narcissism. She’s very focused on her own needs (her client’s too, to be fair) but she rarely expresses any kind of appreciation for the support she’s getting from her staff, her partner, or Archer who’s a real workhorse for her. Some of this is by design, I suspect, to make Josie flawed and thus more real and convincing. But I feel like she’d be a better character if she showed some gratitude and thought of others more. Also if she took steps to fix what she botched when her boss at her law firm (where she would be a full partner if she only signed the papers sitting on her desk through the whole span of time the book covers) comes down on her about dropping everything else to take this controversial case. I saw plenty of opportunity to make Josie more likable and also more believable, without doing away with making her convincingly human. This nagging sense of her being too self-centered makes me less enthusiastic about picking up another Josie Baylor-Bates novel than I otherwise would be.
The biggest failing on the characterization front to my thinking was in rendering of Hannah’s stepfather, Kip Rayburn, who to be felt more like caricature than character and who has pretty much zero redeeming virtue. The same holds true to varying extent for other characters we’re not suppose to like, but he stood out to me in this respect. The author struck a much better balance with Hannah Sheraton who’s deeply flawed but in a fascinating way and has some interesting layers to her personality. Hannah is a convincing mix of good and bad, with her less desirable traits plausibly tied to the negligence of her mother and the various forms of abuse she endured growing up. She a character who’s easy to rally for despite her bad decisions and who feels three dimensional and whole in a way that Kip does not. I appreciate the impact of this rendering on the cultivation of Kip as a suspect, but the one-sidedness of his portrayal definitely did interfere with my engagement with the story. He’s by no means a stock character as there are some interesting layers to his personality that are rooted in his own relationship with his father. But he felt a long way from fully realized to me, mostly because all we ever see is his bad qualities–his putting political ambition above anything else and never really stepping up in the effort to be a good husband or stepfather, except with financial support.
Finally there’s Linda Sheraton whose plight as a single mother (backstory and present day) is plenty interesting and fraught with lots of bad decisions and mixed up priorities. She’s smartly imagined–attractive, impeccably dressed, hot running, and very persuasive when she needs to be–but she too feels incompletely rendered because all we really see from her is selfishness and greed masquerading as love for her troubled daughter. I loved the way the story lays these attributes bare and tears down the illusion she tries to create that she’s being greedy, manipulative, and selfish only in the best interest of her daughter, but this is another case where some kind of truly redeeming virtue would have been most welcome. That said, her desperation is well rendered and I think there’s a lot the author gets right in making her an asset to the story.
One thing we advocate in story development work with our authors at The Editorial Department is the notion that the best characters are rarely the ones who are one-sidedly evil, despicable, or dislikable. Focusing only on a character’s bad points can be tempting–especially if you need plausible red herrings in whodunit type plots–but the result is rarely fully satisfying. Some of the most unforgettable bad guys are the ones who have some redeeming qualities mixed in with their badness. (Hannibal Lecter may be poster child for this principle thanks to his articulate charm and way with words, his dry sense of humor, his keen intelligence, and the sense that he comes to care about Clarice Starling when he’s not biting off people’s faces or enjoying a man’s liver with fava beans and a good chianti.) Kip isn’t smart, he isn’t caring, he isn’t funny, or frankly all that engaging–except as a possible suspect. The fact that he suffered abuse is great, but the one-sided characterizations of Kip and Linda Rayburn make the story a little bit less interesting and also harder to believe.
The author took the time to develop compelling and well thought out backstory, presumably in the effort to mitigate some of the bad behavior and make them more sympathetic to readers than they otherwise would be. But she didn’t’ really give Kip or Linda any kind of genuine good or virtue. Without this Hannah’s allegiance to her mother is a little harder to swallow than it otherwise would be, as is Linda’s allegiance to Kip.
The style of the book is pleasant and unobtrusive, which makes it easy to stay focused on the story rather than its telling. One thing I admired was how deftly the author moves the story forward in time and keep readers up to speed on what happened off stage without feeling like we missed anything. Her use of narrative summary and snippets of newscasts, public statements, etc. help keep the pace moving at a good clip.
All in all, I found Hostile Witness to be an imaginative, fast paced, and entertaining legal thriller whose shortcomings from a craft standpoint are easy to forgive. It’s a good novel that I think would have been better with more attention to the characters of Kip and Linda Rayburn and some qualities and attributes that aren’t purely despicable.