A second novel would seem to bring with it weight of its own burden, especially when it features an ongoing character. If the first novel was in any way successful, the author must attempt to duplicate that success without using the original as a template, while maintaining those elements that made the first novel so memorable. I don't know whether William Lashner, after the success of HOSTILE WITNESS and the introduction of Victor Carl, agonized over what to do for an encore, or whether he had everything plotted out ahead of time. It ultimately doesn't matter, as BITTER TRUTH (originally published as VERITAS) does not merely meet the expectations created by his first work but ultimately exceeds them.
BITTER TRUTH finds Victor Carl mired in a legal career that is at least marginally successful financially but morally reprehensible, consisting of the defense of mob extortionists, buttonmen and other lowlifes as an unwilling penance for favors done for him in HOSTILE WITNESS, the first of the Victor Carl novels. Salvation comes to him while he is defending Peter Cressi, a midlevel mob hood who has been caught in the act of purchasing 179 illegally modified assault weapons, three grenade launchers, and a flame thrower --- purely as a collector, of course --- from an undercover police officer.
Following Cressi's bail hearing, Carl is approached by Caroline Shaw for the purpose of retaining Carl for an investigative, as opposed to a legal, matter. Shaw wants Carl to find out who murdered her sister, Jacqueline. It does not matter to Shaw that her sister's death has been ruled a suicide; Shaw is not only convinced that her sister was murdered, but also believes that she will be next. Her reason for approaching Carl to investigate is that she believes that the murderer is one Jimmy "Vigs" Dubinsky, who happens to be an occasional client of Carl's.
Carl is reluctant to get involved in the matter, but is tempted by the fact that Shaw is an heiress to the Reddman family fortune. Carl sees the opportunity to collect a huge contingency fee if he can determine that Jacqueline Shaw was murdered and bring a wrongful death action against the perpetrator. He accordingly begins to walk a fine and dangerous line between ethical responsibilities on the one hand and his mobster employers on the other.
To complicate matters, Carl also finds himself in the middle of an organized crime power struggle that will have ramifications not only for the Reddman case but also for his future. The tale is incredibly complex and the telling of it is ambitious. Lashner alternates between the present and past in relating the story and Carl's persona slowly and subtly begins to change from a wiseass with a slight chip on his shoulder to someone who is, perhaps, a bit darker in outlook. The result is an ambitious novel that drops the reader into a labyrinth of family secrets that have been buried --- literally --- in the past and that are the motives for violent actions in the present.
Given its incredibly rich and complex plot, BITTER TRUTH is a surprisingly strong novel that fulfills the promise of its predecessor and garners hope for any future work from Lashner. The only complaint that any of Lashner's fans might have at this point is the amount of time that passes between his novels.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 25, 2003