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FALSE WITNESS
by Andrew Grant
Ballantine, January 2018
320 pages
$27.00
ISBN: 0399594337


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Dramatis personae: Cooper Devereaux, police detective in Birmingham, Alabama who carries the knowledge that his father may have been a murderer and who grew up an orphan; Alexandra, mother of Cooper's daughter, and on the outs with Cooper ever since she found out that he carried a criminal's genes; Lucas Paltrow, auto mechanic who fixes women's cars and gives them lectures about being good mothers to their children; Tim Kendrick, a man in need of money who claims he has knowledge of Cooper's father's past that will exonerate him; Billy Flynn, suspicious auto-repair helper of whom people say, "he's slow"; Dean Sullivan, friend to Lucas Paltrow, target of his pregnant wife's invective, bad poet, and bad liar; Deborah Holt, who gave up her child for adoption, dead at age 21; Siobhan O'Keefe, 21, dead; Emma Noble, call girl, dead; Annette Underwood, age 21, abducted; a mysterious letter-writer, whose handwritten whiney missives to his mom appear throughout; Tim Kendrick, who has information about Cooper's father, for a price; Diane McKenzie, fearless and honorable journalist, bearer of the truth; doctors and nurses, grieving mothers, nosey neighbors, skeletons in closets.

As Andrew Grant's third novel in the "False" series opens, 20-year-old good-timing girl Deborah Holt has just found out that her lazy, talentless boyfriend has been—ah—cultivating the friendship of other women. Although she is carrying his child, she realizes the game is up, and she hits the road to Birmingham, Alabama, her mother's home. Her car breaks down—fortuitously just down the highway from a clean, reliable-looking automotive repair shop. The owner, realizing that Deborah has no money, fixes her car gratis and lectures her about being a good mother to her still-unborn child. Deborah makes it home, gives her baby up for adoption, turns her life around, gets a job, falls in love, and, at age 21, is found dead, murdered.

The murdered girl has been posed, with her hands covering her naked breasts and genitals. She is wrapped in a clean sheet and displayed at the gateway to a cemetery, where the groundskeeper finds her. Cooper Devereaux, detective in the Birmingham police department, begins to search for who had means, motive, and opportunity. More dead women turn up, all posed. Cooper must find the killer before another young woman meets her end.

Grant has crafted a more complex plot than the hunt for a serial killer. Cooper has been estranged from the mother of his child, Alexandra, for eight years, ever since Alexandra found out that Cooper's dad might have been a murderer. Her concern is, is the urge to murder genetic? Will Cooper suddenly reveal himself to be a psychopath and do her in? She and Cooper attempt a rapprochement, but Alexandra still has her doubts.

Besides his separation from Alexandra, Cooper also carries the double stigma of his father's criminality and of his parents' early death, leaving him an orphan. His need to exonerate his father leads him to consider paying off a blackmailer who claims to have information about his father's last years. Cooper, following another trail, finds the daughter of a journalist who covered the police beat while his father lived—and the daughter herself is a journalist in the finer sense of the word as well. She begins digging in her father's papers for the truth about Cooper's father.

Grant's novel is heavily plotted. Every few pages, if there is not a murder, there is an explosion, a code blue, or a carjacking. Those who normally consume their thrillers via video will not be disappointed: commercial break cliffhangers abound. It's strange that they do so, however, without any commercial breaks. Indeed, I feel that Grant has not been taught to pace a work by reading so much as by watching thrillers on the telly. There is little character development here. Reasons for characters' bizarre acts are told in a sentence, but that is not the same thing as letting us live in the characters' psyches until we do not need to be told. We understand and believe.

Grant's bad guys are thoroughly evil psychopaths, and readers can easily place them in that category. However, he is not so good at developing sympathy for the victims. The one we come to know has cornered the market on bad decisions. If she is to be an unreliable point-of-view character (she's not the narrator), there is little here to attract readers to her side (which is how unreliable narrators and point-of-view characters work). People's actions, listed on a page, just look busy. As readers, we need to know more about why.

§ Cathy Downs is professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville where she teaches American literature and is a fan of the well-crafted whodunit.

Reviewed by Cathy Downs, January 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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