There is a reason Josie Baylor-Bates isn’t a criminal defense attorney anymore. And everything seems to be working out with her life just fine, thank you very much. She’s about to be made partner in a small, inconspicuous law firm serving no one controversial, and she’s got her home and her dog to keep her company in Hermosa Beach, California. A former beach volleyball star in her late 30s, the only thing she still contends with is abandonment issues from her mother who walked out on her when Josie was just a teenager.
It is into this world that Linda and Hannah Rayburn arrive, a mother-and-daughter team set to bring a plea of not guilty to trial in the murder of Fritz Rayburn, a former California Supreme Court Justice. Fritz has been killed by a blow to the head and a subsequent fire in the sizable home he shared with his son Kip, Kip’s wife Linda and Hannah, who stands accused of the crime due to a history of emotional problems and eyewitness accounts of her arguments with Fritz hours before the crime.
Hostile Witness is the first in the Witness Series legal thrillers that stars Josie Baylor-Bates and is saved from easy categorization as a John Grisham or a Perry Mason courtroom drama by the strong characterization accompanying the players. Not quite literary but engaging in every other sense, Josie’s doubts about representing Hannah stem from her earlier defense of a young woman who went on to kill again after her successful release. It was this high-profile trial that drove Josie to more inconspicuous areas of the law. Hannah, a beautiful, sensitive and anxious teen, is a gifted painter but also obsessive compulsive. Her mother, Linda, a former college roommate of Josie–as much a party goer as Josie was a student athlete, blood and water, in other words–shows up on Josie’s doorstep with her indomitable will and pleas to represent her daughter. Only Linda has enough influence, from their complex college relationship, to convince Josie to return to criminal law…just this once.
Set wonderfully against the sights, sounds and smells of Hermosa Beach, Josie’s increasing involvement in Hannah’s life soon defies not only a history as a criminal attorney who represented the wrong client in a high-profile case. It also ties into mother-and-daughter concerns, as Linda’s parenting qualities eventually become a significant factor in the trial even as Josie becomes something of a surrogate mother to Hannah. It turns out too that Kip Rayburn, set to replace his father on the Supreme Court and who desperately wants the trial of his stepdaughter to go away (and his stepdaughter too, for that matter), has some secrets of his own.
Part drama, part courtroom thriller, part story of an attorney about to enter middle age and questioning where her values lie, the twists in the plot line, the dubious facts, the intensity and high emotion make Hostile Witness a gripping read. Relationships are never certain as new evidence contradicts what the reader has come to know as truth. And when Josie refuses to face that mounting evidence against her client, she holds fast to a belief in Hannah’s innocence, contradicting everyone from a belligerent prosecutor, to Kip Rayburn and even then to Hannah’s mother and Josie’s strong and supportive anchor of a boyfriend. The stage is set for a final showdown that ultimately does not disappoint.
Not a typical reader of legal thrillers, I nevertheless was impressed by the steady pacing that pulled me through to the story’s gripping conclusion. Five books compose Forster’s Witness series. I just added number two, Silent Witness, to my list of books to read.