Hostile Witness by Rebecca Forster (Ridiculously Long, Spoiler-filled Rant)

(from last post)……the PLOT MADE NO SENSE! And this is why.

Here on out, it’s going to be spoilers galore and you’ve been warned!

Question #1 What was the probable cause for Hannah’s arrest?

So, the story goes that this big-name supreme justice guy (named Fritz of all things), dies in a fire at his home. At that time, his son (named… <sigh> …Kip), his daughter-in-law (our beautiful Linda) and her 16-year old daughter from a previous marriage, Hannah, were there too. Hannah is arrested when the police realise this was arson and the old guy was assaulted, resulting in a head injury, before the fire was set.

According to Linda, Hannah’s picked up by the police immediately following the funeral. The funeral, though not explicitly mentioned, is purported to be soon after the murder. But the family is shocked! They had no idea whatsoever that the old man was murdered! Now, this is somewhat unusual, because in a criminal case, is the body so willy-nilly returned to the family, without any delay that might cause even an inkling of a doubt? Can they even return the body before the defence team had a look at it?

Following on, the evidence against Hannah (who’s an avid painter) is revealed to be turpentine used as an accelerant and the DNA left over from the assault on the dead man’s cheek matching the girl. Oh, and an eyewitness who claims to have seen her arguing with the dead guy earlier in the day. Let me take these one by one.

  1. The turpentine was kept in her painting studio, accessible to everyone in the house- a point that’s indeed brought up on cross-examination and promptly ignored.
  2. DNA analysis ain’t so quick as they show on tv shows, it can sometimes take weeks and this was 1999. In fact, even the arson inspectors weren’t done with their analysis by the time of the bail hearing; you want me to believe DNA was done.
  3. Finally, if judges would sign an arrest warrant for every person arguing with a murder victim, I don’t think we have enough cells for that.

There really isn’t anything else presented as evidence in this book, apart from her mental health issues which is an entire topic by itself.

So, what was written in that warrant- hey, I need a story, so go with it please?

Question #2 Are you a big-shot criminal lawyer? Are you really, Josie?

The entire shtick about Josie is that the last case she won, she got off a killer who went on to brutally murder her own kids (a story brought out in bits and pieces very competently, I must say). Josie had believed in her innocence and so, during this entire trial she’s constantly second-guessing her judgement and her client’s innocence. A couple of bones here…

“Josie, why haven’t you ever asked me if I’m innocent?” Hannah leaned close as if she knew what Josie was thinking.

Josie chuckled darkly. She sat back in her chair and crossed her arms to look at her client. She told her the truth.

“Because I was being a good defense attorney. If I asked you and you told me you were guilty, I couldn’t put you on the stand if I had to. If I knew you were going to lie, I’d be suborning perjury. No defense attorney ever asks that question.”

Not asking the question ain’t the same as not looking at the evidence lady! Or not deposing your client properly. The beauty of law lies in its objectivity; it’s absolutely evidence-based. The twist that’s deus ex machina-ed towards the end, wouldn’t have had to be deus ex machina-ed if she had only asked her client one question:

What did you do that night?

Which should’ve been at the top of the list anyway, so I don’t understand how she missed it. Also, out of curiosity, how many’d answer that question with “Naw! I’m guilty!”

Also, hailing from the largest democracy as I be, I can tell you the fundamental basis of “defence attorney” is not to prove your client’s innocence or guilt- it’s fair representation. That’s why you need to take a good look at the evidence, that’s why you don’t ask the million-dollar question and that’s why Josie’s whinging about her conscience, her future, her past made me rage. I mean, there’s a dead man and a 16-year old’s entire life at stake here, look up from the ruffles, princess.

As for the courtroom drama, the entire final bit where Josie “goes for the jugular” is comedic. She didn’t lay the foundation anywhere for her line of questioning. Also, when you have evidence, witnesses for defence that can support your client’s testimony, what’s the harm in putting them on before going for the jugular, especially when you don’t even know whose jugular it is (Josie thought it was Kip’s, turns out to be Hannah’s and that leaves… yes, yes, all in good time).  

Question #3 What the f**k’s the big secret? Oh that! Oh……

Now, for our finest piece, an authentic 20th century exhibit of an old geezer suddenly taking an inordinate amount of interest in a 16-year old girl, spending hours cooped up with her, spending galleons of money on her; and how come? You say the girl’s not grateful at all? Going out of her way to avoid him, is she? Suddenly acting out, is she? Why, whatever could be the reason, you’d be wondering. Well, you see, my gullible gapers, he was not a nice man at all, he was physically abusing the child every chance he got.

Shocked? Surprised? Well alright, at least a little tingled? Yeah, I didn’t think so either.

By the way, until latching on to this revelation more than halfway through the book, her motive for committing the crime was who knows what goes through the mind of a 16-year old, and she’s sick too.

(which reminds me…)

Question #4 Mental health MISrepresentation, y’all!

Hannah has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). She has a checking ritual before she can go to bed and she has a magic number- 20; she has to turn the doorknob 20 times, she has to take the first step 20 times, she has to tap the table 20 times, she has to touch objects 20 times. If she doesn’t, if she’s stopped in the middle of her ritual, she gets anxious and panicky. While at times inconsistent, the disorder was well-described. Especially her struggle with it and the reactions of others around her.

The only major mistake is where she resents treatment for her condition. The hallmark of OCD are the thoughts are ego-dystonic, meaning that the person recognises them as being intrusive, unnecessary and beyond their control. Sufferers of OCD bring themselves to the clinic and this insight is what puts them at risk for depression. And having a magic number of 20 can’t be easy.

However, both her mother and multiple people around her berate Hannah for her “self-indulgent” behaviour. I didn’t think my eyes could get any rounder, but then they went on and tried to claim it as some sort of a motive or evidence of guilt. I mean dude, if she’s on medication with antidepressants in 1999 and she’s able to keep awake long enough to commit murders, let me know where you’re getting it from.

Now granted most of this nonsense is spouted by her mother and stepfather who aren’t good people, but the story runs with it. Remember where I asked about probable cause, not only did they have none, but it comes off like the cops needed none ‘coz the kid be mentally ill! They even consider it for a possible defence plea. Using words like psychotic and homicidal in the same vein as obsessive-compulsive not only makes no sense, but is also doing a huge disservice to those who’re leading good lives with the diagnosis.

The reason we have an entire field of psychiatry dedicated to mental illness (and the finals I ought to be studying for right now) is because “Mental Illness” is not an umbrella term. Each disorder is different and has different sequelae. Not every patient of mine flies into a psychotic rage or descends into homicidal mania. In fact, “homicidal mania” lends itself to scrutiny in academia. Also, legal insanity is a completely different ball game with stricter criteria than medical insanity. So, even the consideration of OCD or OCD with comorbid marijuana abuse as something that would fly in criminal court makes me question the smarts of every lawman involved.

Also, there was this line about how Hannah’s pain is so internalized, she doesn’t feel it… I’m not sure that’s how it works. Physical pain and psychological pain are different entities. Even if you’re “dead inside”, you’d shriek and shrivel if spilled hot soup down your shirt.

Question #5 How dumb do you think we are?

The murder happens in a house that’s remote and cut off from the world. At the time of the murder, there were 4 people in the house. The soon-to-be-corpse, the about-to-be-accused, the shit-pot son, his shit-in-the-shit-pot wife and a forgotten housekeeper. As you can all see, what we have here is a typical isolated closed circle murder mystery.

Now, as the guild of whodunnits decree, the first one to be accused has to be innocent- so the kid’s out. The housekeeper is introduced in court and immediately forgotten, she’s out. Then there’s the potty son whom you can’t bear to like or trust because he was never written to be liked or trusted. From the get-go, Kip was an asshole of the first order. But again, the guild decrees that none who is wished by all into the role can play the role, so he’s out too! That leaves the wife who’s a terrible mother- she’s the murderer, isn’t she?


And that’s how obvious the solution is, for which I had to wade through so much verbosity. The ultimate court scene pairs off the two old friends against each other with Linda on the stand and Josie interrogating.

“And was your husband in bed with you, Mrs. Rayburn?”

The silence was full to bursting as the two women looked at one another.

Maybe it was supposed to have a final showdown sort of vibe, because the way they’re described when together or in relation to each other was always portentous. But I was beyond the reach of any vibes while screaming at Josie’s idiocy. ASK HER WHERE SHE WAS!

Yo, 2 people supposed to be in a room and 1’s missing. Isn’t the next question naturally gonna be, yes, but where you there? What’s to say you weren’t there too? We aren’t dumb as you, Josie!

Go on, ask me how she finally works it out…

A crime scene picture with 2 sets of footprints, one under the ash and one over the ash- which she’s only examining now! And Linda coming to visit her at exactly that time, wearing those exact same shoes, and leaving those exact same footprints because they somehow end up at the beach! Then, there’s one tacked on chapter where Linda goes all cartoon villain, walking around, expositing, muwahahaha-ing, instead of stabbing the bitch and wouldn’t you know, the whole thing’s recorded on some dang answering machine (which doesn’t beep you out apparently) and she goes to jail. And I wanted to rant.

There are other unresolved things, like the conversation where the father is meant to be scared of some “her”, the entire drama with Faye, and how Linda, who’s supposed to be “smart as a whip”, couldn’t foresee that her plan sucks and of course, would be discovered. Also, remember that DNA they found, the book tried to teach me that a mother’s DNA can be easily confused with the daughter’s- no, it can’t. That’s even bigger bullshit than “internalized pain”.

With that, I’ve successfully externalized my pain and what a relief it’s been.

On that note, do you ever go searching for rant reviews of books you don’t like just to feel better? (<whisper> like me <whisper>)

Happy Reading!

PS: It was evident that initially Linda was trying to be built up as a sympathetic character, caught between husband and child, oh! How difficult!

Only, that should’ve never been a question.

A mother should choose her child, her 16-year old child who’s been accused of murder, who’s being tried as an adult, who faces lifetime imprisonment to death penalty, who has nobody but her, who is her f**king baby…over her husband of 2 years. Even if he wasn’t an asshole and she wasn’t in trouble, this should’ve never been a choice. But, it was, she kept picking the husband and on top of that, we got her POVs in which she was an absolute horror to her scared daughter…so, really, maybe this book did subvert expectations; the most hated character did end up as the murderer.

Lets raise our glasses to mothers who never let go, cheers!

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