The Perfect Witness
Bernie Siegel
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Buy *The Perfect Witness* online The Perfect Witness
Barry Siegel
Ballantine Books
352 pages
January 1998
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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Barry Siegel turns his writing in the fiction direction with his first novel, The Perfect Witness. An award-winning reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Siegel was nominated for an Edgar award in the Best Fact Crime category for one of his two previous books, A Death in White Bear Lake. Billed as a courtroom thriller, The Perfect Witness provides a perfect opportunity for readers to watch with a critical eye how a true crime writer fares in making the jump from factual to fictive material.

Curled Up With a Good BookGreg Monarch practices civil law in the central California coastal town of La Graciosa. His one turn at capital criminal defense landed his client on Death Row. On his own since his former partner, Ira Sullivan, lost his grip on living after the death of his young son, Greg works cases of little controversy, sticking to the strict ethical code he inherited from his physician father. When Ira stands accused of the brutal murder of an elderly postmaster, Greg tries to refuse the job of Ira's defense counsel. He finds that he simply cannot stand idly by while the man who was once his best friend is tried for a crime Ira maintains he did not commit.

Trouble is, Ira can't account for his own whereabouts for the time of the murder. The last thing he remembers is heading for the dunes with a couple of bar buddies, after which he blacked out from a combination of booze and meth. A bullet from a .38 killed the postmaster, and Ira owns a .38. The fact that ballistics indicate that it wasn't Ira's gun, but a similar one, from which the fatal shot was fired, and the fact that there are no fingerprints or fibers on the scene to indicate Ira's presence, become moot points in the case. The ambitious man prosecuting Ira has an undeniable ace in the hole: an acquaintance of Ira's who says she was with him at the postmaster's and saw Ira kill the old man. She is unflappable and convincing. She is the perfect witness.

Goaded into helping his old friend by newspaper reporter Jimmy O'Brien, Greg cannot surmount Sandy Polson's testimony against Ira. Ira is convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. With the reluctant help of Assistant U.S. District Attorney Kim Rosen, Greg will uncover a conspiracy to bury Ira with roots in a local power plant's criminal disposal of nuclear waste. He will discover a whole invisible social strata revolving around the dunes of central California. Neither will be enough to get his friend off Death Row. What he must do is walk down the path of understanding the sociopathic mind, a walk that will take him across his personal ethical lines and into a realization that shatters his belief in the person upon whose ethics he has modeled his own. He must make the perfect witness his own.

The Perfect Witness starts off with the promise of being an intriguing literary/thriller cross. It loses some steam about midway, but has enough momentum to carry the reader through to its conclusion. The Perfect Witness is not the perfect book, but with practice and time its author might just come to rival the mighty Grisham.

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