I haven't read many legal thrillers in the past few years, but I think I am going to have to add more books of this genre to my future reading list - especially those written by Rebecca Forster. Hostile Witness is just a fantastic, completely absorbing read, the kind of book that makes you hate your job because having to get up early for work means having to set the novel aside in the wee hours of the morning just so you can get a few hours of sleep. Any thriller is best judged by the number of hours' sleep you miss, and Hostile Witness is right up there with the best of them.
Usually, legal thrillers have a few passages that are dry and boring or feature cardboard characters lacking any spark of life in them. Not so with Hostile Witness. Forster has given life to some vivid, remarkably human characters - the heroic, sympathetic lawyer who puts a painful past behind her to defend a young girl accused of arson and murder; the 16-year-old defendant, a troubled teen lost in emotional chaos and harboring shocking secrets, the girls' seriously dysfunctional mother and step-father seemingly hiding behind mysterious secrets of their own, the hard-nosed yet somehow slightly noble prosecuting attorney, even the victim himself, a man already dead when the novel begins.
The protagonist of the novel is Josie Baylor-Bates, a lawyer who finds herself back in the criminal defense game she left some years ago. Not only is she still dealing with the pain of being abandoned by her mother when she was just a young girl, she is haunted by an old case. An accused murderer she successfully defended (and truly believed to be innocent) turned around and killed again - only this time it was her own children. The sense of guilt that tragedy engendered in Josie led her to abandon criminal defense cases altogether and settle down in a quiet beach community with a quiet little legal practice. Then an old college roommate turns up at her door and begs her to defend her daughter. This will be no ordinary case; it will, in fact, explode all over the media. The girl, Hannah Sheraton, is accused of killing her step-grandfather, a man who just happened to be a prominent justice on the California Supreme Court. In the middle of everything is Hannah's step-father, the governor's choice to take his father's place on the high bench. The case has media circus written all over it - even before a series of shocking revelations about the murdered judge come to light, but Josie agrees to take the case after meeting Hannah. She sees a little bit of herself in the young girl, a frightened lass with deep emotional troubles manifested outwardly in obsessive-compulsive behavior, self-mutilation, and a powerful overdependence on her mother.
Convinced of her client's innocence, Josie's defense of the girl runs into a number of obstacles, including the girl's own mother and step-father, neither of whom, Josie comes to believe, has Hannah's best interests at heart. All too soon, this case has become intensely personal for Josie, and that leads her to question her own motivations. Forster does a wonderful job of developing these characters, showing you increasingly significant cracks in their facades while holding out on the goods until the very end. You have your suspicions, but you just don't know the truth about what is really going on and who is really responsible for the victim's death until the very end.
The novel's most memorable moments take place inside the courtroom, culminating in some unforgettable moments of witness testimony, but the case takes drastic turns (more than once) away from all the cameras and watching eyes. It's an emotional roller coaster for Josie, trying to deal with her own personal baggage alongside the heavy burdens placed upon her by Hannah's incredibly dysfunctional family and the intense pressures of such a high profile trial. A wondrously human heart beats inside the chest of this particular lawyer, though, and that - plus a beautifully constructed plot - is what makes Hostile Witness a novel you just can't put down.