Book Club May 2021 – Hostile Witness

May 2021 –  Hostile Witness by William Lashner

Rarely has Zion’s Book Club had a closer relationship to a chosen book than May’s Hostile Witness.   Our reader who selected this novel shares a profession with author William Lashner.  Lashner is an attorney, a former federal prosecutor.  Not only that, but our Book Club member interviewed Mr. Lashner for a radio show some time ago.  The novel is set in Philadelphia which just happens to be the selector’s home town.  All of which were reasons for the choice in addition to the fact that the member just enjoys Mr. Lashner’s books.  If you are entertained by true-to-life details and stories concerning the practice of law, this book will please you on several levels.  As one reader remarked, it has everything – murder, drugs, political corruption, bribery, fraud, extortion, sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  Well, perhaps not the latter but definitely the rest!

Mr. Lashner gives a minutely detailed (lengthy descriptions being a drawback of the book) and extremely accurate portrayal of the different strata of Philadelphia society from the high-income attendees of political fundraisers to the drug dealers of the projects.  He speaks authentically in all their voices from highbrow to street level, but he has made Victor Carl, Esq. of the watering eyes his protagonist.  Having achieved a law degree but not acceptance into a high-powered law firm, Victor had joined with two other attorneys to form a small practice only to be betrayed when the one partner ran off with Victor’s fiancée.  The fiancée came from money and was Victor’s path up the ladder to bigger and better things for which he overtly lusts.  It is hard to say if he misses the woman or the entrée into society more.  When a partner from a hugely successful practice approaches Victor to represent a city councilman’s aide in an extortion, arson, and murder trial, it appears Victor’s luck may have turned.  All he needs to do is exactly nothing – just sit there quietly and take his cues from the partner defending the councilman.  Victor’s ethics may be elastic, but he is not stupid.  Resisting his remaining partner’s opinion that his client, and thus Victor himself, is being set up to take a fall works for only so long.  As Victor begins his own investigation on the side, readers meet a plethora of characters (another of the drawbacks of the novel is the lengthy cast), most of them unsavory.  Political corruption runs rampant, tensions between federal and state prosecutors are displayed, and witnesses often end up dead.

One of the most appealing characters in the novel is the Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jewish investigator, Morris Kapinsky, whom Victor employs (think a Jewish Columbo).  Again, the voice is truly authentic as are the lengths to which investigations can go.  One of the least appealing characters is Veronica, twisted mistress of the councilman, who seduces a very willing Victor.  Those elastic ethics again!  Victor has more energy than the Energizer bunny, sneaking into Veronica’s building, trying to escape her watchers’ notice, running an investigation strictly forbidden by the councilman and the highbrowed attorney.  It is ironic that fighting to uphold law and order may demand bending or breaking a few of those laws.  Victor likes to live on the edge, but soon faces a choice – what to do, what to do . . . An attorney’s client is the boss, and Victor’s client still thinks the councilman is going to take care of him although Victor can see the writing on the wall.  Is it a moral decision of right and wrong as Victor seeks his Jewish father’s advice, or is Victor succumbing to fear after a few physical reminders that he is expendable?  Plot twists abound as Mr. Lashner ties things together.

Due to the long descriptive passages, the book was slow going for many of Zion’s members at first.  As the action picked up, it was more readable although some readers made written lists of characters and how they fit into the story.  One thing we appreciated was Mr. Lashner’s use of Philadelphia landmarks.  Many of our readers had connections to the city, whether tracing ancestors to North Philly and Rosemont Cemetery (wondering if they’d be shot while taking pictures of old homes in dangerous neighborhoods); having a child do an internship at a Philly hospital and being warned to never go into the park/drug marketplace across the street; run-ins with aggressive Philly drivers who flip you the bird and lay on the horn if you courteously allow someone to pull out; the “courtesy” tows by the local neighborhood police when a reason to close a street arises and you return to find your car has moved miles away.  The City of Brotherly Love is a misnomer for a gritty metropolis that is also a major port, has I-95 running through it, hosts organized crime of all varieties, and overdoses on political chicanery. In short, Adams County it is not.

So, while our readers enjoyed the visit through Mr. Lashner’s eyes, we wouldn’t want to live there.  Victor Carl is a unique character who repels as much as attracts, and he reappears in subsequent novels by the author.  Based on our voting, many of us may tackle another of the author’s books in the future.  We had three readers who were neutral, six who gave it one thumb up, and three who gave it two thumbs up.  Zion’s Book Club meets in June to discuss Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour.  Happy reading!