There are a number of legal thrillers being published with great regularity, but I haven't encountered very many that capture what it is like to walk out of law school with that freshly minted degree, pass the bar exam, set up practice and...wait. Wait for the phone to ring, wait for that promised money to start rolling in, wait for that career satisfaction to kick in.
William Lashner, the author of HOSTILE WITNESS, describes this and, even though he describes it from a retrospective standpoint, does it quite well. Actually, he does a number of things quite well and a number of things amazingly well. When Victor Carl, Lashner's main character gets caught between the rock of expenses and the hard place of a shrinking accounts receivable, one gets the feeling that Lashner, who was a practicing attorney in Philadelphia, has either been there or has been close enough to it that he knows what it smells and looks like, even if he's never tasted it.
When we meet Carl he is six years out of law school and, in his own words, flat-out broke. Out of time, out of money and possessing only an abundance of despair, a sharp intellect and a way with a smart remark, he finds himself only a few cases away from being destitute. One of those cases takes him to the offices of Talbott, Kittredge, and Chase, opposing counsel and one of the premiere Philadelphia law firms. Carl goes into their offices expecting nothing and leaves not only with a generous offer of settlement for a marginal case, but also an offer of employment as co-counsel.
William Prescott III, a partner with Talbott, Kittredge, and Chase offers Carl the opportunity to represent Chester Concannon, an aide to City Councilman Jimmy Moore and charged as a co-defendant with Moore for extortion, arson and murder. The trial is in two weeks, but all Carl has to do is sit down, be quiet and leave everything to Prescott. The fee that Prescott offers is more than enough to solve all of Karl's problems as well. It is that final point that sweeps away any ethical reservations Carl might have. It does not take long, though, before it becomes obvious to Carl that Prescott is subtly setting Concannon --- and Carl --- up for a fall.
That, however, is not Carl's only problem. He soon finds himself involved with Moore's mistress, the beautiful, enigmatic Veronica Ashland. Ashland is the nexus of the Gordeon knot that lays at the heart of the crimes Moore and Concannon are accused of and has the potential to either save Carl's client or bring the case crashing down around his ears.
Between first page and last, Lashner does a masterful job of keeping this complex, complicated plot humming along quite nicely and demonstrates a fine sense of knowing when to connect dots for the reader and when to sit back and let the reader do it. If there's a flaw at all in HOSTILE WITNESS, it's with the introduction of Morris Kapustin, a wonderfully unlikely private investigator. The flaw is that Kapustin is so interesting a character that he almost steals the entire book away from Carl. If only every author had such a problem --- Lashner has so many interesting characters that they must jostle for position between the book covers!
HOSTILE WITNESS is a magnificent debut that will leave the reader wishing for more of Carl --- and of Lashner. More of both, thankfully, are on the way.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 1, 1996