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Book Review: Missing Witness by Gordon Campbell

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Missing Witness by Gordon Campbell is a fabulous debut law novel that has the ring of authenticity and will keep you guessing.

Douglas McKenzie was newly out of law school when he turned down a prestigious offer from a law firm in San Francisco to return to Phoenix, Ariz., his home town. Yes, the money was better, but the prestige and the lifestyle were distinctly less appealing. Why did he do it? Because of the promise of working with famed trial lawyer Daniel Morgan. One of Doug's professors had told him that Dan Morgan was "the real thing."

Doug suspects that the large offer on the part of the firm had to do with his connection to one of the firm's biggest clients: rancher Ferris Eddington. Doug's father had been Eddington's accountant, and Doug had spent much of his youth on the ranch.

The two motivations come together in complete synchrony when Doug gets his chance to work with Dan defending Ferris Eddington's daughter-in-law Rita. Rita is charged with killing Ferris' son, and Eddington wants the woman defended. Why was anyone's guess.

What follows is a terrific piece of law writing. The trial of Rita Eddington and its aftermath unfold with great suspense. Most of the lawyers involved are rendered as completely human, as opposed to simply inhabiting stereotypes. The story gives great attention to detail regarding our adversarial justice system, and how the lawyers use it. It is no forgone conclusion who will win these cases (for there is more than one), who will find the most applicable rulings, or who will turn up the best witnesses for testimony. In the background are issues of money (who brings how much into the firm) and love (or the lack thereof), two of the main drivers of any human drama.

The action is set in the 1970s, and the times are clearly on display: lots of smoking and drinking. Issues of real estate and politics of Arizona are also examined, and I have no reason to believe they aren't accurate. They certainly are plausible.

I am no aficionado of the courtroom mystery genre nor a regular watcher of Law and Order, and not all reviewers of such ilk enjoyed the book as much as I did. Be that as it may, Missing Witness is not a simple pot boiler; it has a crispness and worldliness that strengthen it. It is impressive that it was created by a working lawyer in his spare time.

What is it with lawyers and novels? Perhaps the fact that their profession depends on words makes them more likely to write fiction. Whatever the reason Gordon Campbell first put pen to paper and then rescued the manuscript from the obscurity of his desk drawer, and I am glad he did.

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About Nancy Fontaine

Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, and every four years during presidential primary season, the national press.