Book review: Witness by Cath Staincliffe

Witness
Cath Staincliffe
Constable, 2011.

This novel is a thoroughly absorbing account of the aftermath of a death. A teenage boy is shot by someone driving past in a car one morning in Hulme, part of Manchester in the north-west of England. Fiona, a midwife, sees the incident as she leaves the house of a new mother. Rushing over to the injured boy, she realises that she assisted at his birth years ago. Fiona does what she can to help, but the boy dies.

As well as Fiona, three other people saw what happened: Mike, who delivers parcels and is in his van when he sees the murder; Cheryl, a young single mother, sees the car drive past and recognises the occupants – then hears the shots; and Zak, a homeless youth, is robbing a house when he sees the incident out of the bedroom window. The novel follows all four witnesses, describing not only their personal reactions and thoughts to the terrible event; but also the pressures they feel from the neighbourhood’s attitude to the shooting. The criminals are part of a gang, and there’s a conspiracy of silence due to people’s fear of intimidation and retaliation. So as well as their own emotions concerning the boy’s death, the witnesses have an ethical dilemma about whether to let the police know what they’ve seen, and whether they will testify in court.

The novel’s structure is to alternate chapters from the point of view of the witnesses. We don’t directly read about the police investigation or the subsequent court case, but see elements of it from the various characters’ perspectives. This device works really well to keep up the tension and avoids the possible tedium of a linear, conventional narrative. I very much liked people’s different reactions to the events, and the way in which their family and friends influence them – sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. The policeman who is the main liaison with the witnesses, Joe, is sympathetically portrayed, and the scenes involving the courts in the run-up to the trial seemed very realistic.

I highly recommend this novel, which uses four people in very different life-situations to highlight the worries that anyone would have if they found themselves in the same situation. The fact that we only see events in which each witness participates adds to the air of menace and fear about anonymity and possible reprisals from the accused or their associates. There is a nice (if chilling) thread in which one witness is intimidated in various ways, but this person is not the one who saw the crucial events that could lead to a conviction. The four main characters are exceptionally well-drawn, though I do think that in a couple of cases the outcomes were slightly too much on the wish-fulfillment side at the expense of reality. That’s a very minor flaw in what is otherwise a compelling book.

I purchased the Kindle version of this book for 99 p.

Read other reviews of Witness at: Euro Crime (Lizzie Hayes), Lovely Treez Reads, and Deadly Diversions (PDF).

At time of writing, there are 23 customer reviews of this book at UK Amazon, 18 of which award it the maximum of 5 stars.

Other books written by Cath Staincliffe, with reviews of some of them, are listed at Euro Crime.

Author’s website (part of the Murder Squad of crime authors from northern England: Martin Edwards, Ann Cleeves, Stuart Pawson, Margaret Murphy, John Baker and Chaz Brenchley being the other members).

17 thoughts on “Book review: Witness by Cath Staincliffe

  1. Pingback: Witness by Cath Staincliffe | Petrona Book Reviews archive

  2. Maxine – Lovely review – thanks. What I like about this kind of narrative structure is that it makes the investigation so much more human; one sees how the events affect these individuals. You’re right, too, I think, that it adds to the suspense. And as you say, it’s a nice alternative to the conventional, linear structure of the novel. And I’m intrigued by that “one-moment-that-changes-it-all” (i.e. the shooting) plot point.

  3. I’ll definitely be reading this as soon as I can get it on Kindle in the USA. Thanks for your review. I’m new to your blog but enjoying it immensely.🙂

    • me neither, Dorte, but this one is OK as you only see it all from the point of view of people who aren’t in gangs and don;t know anything about them (only one of them knows the criminals and that’s only because her friend is stepsister to one of them, so you don’t get any gang details at all – it is all unspoken fear and the odd event told from a witnesses’ pov).

  4. Another title I’ll be adding to my list. It sounds like you can find some very good bargains in the way of ebooks, I have a Nook which means a little less in the way of selection, but I tend to like to pick up paper books just a little more than ebooks–you can’t beat the price or the ease of them however.

    • Thanks, Danielle. Unfortunately (?), the Nook is not available in the UK. For dedicated e-readers, the two options are Kindle or Sony e-reader. But more and more people are reading on other mobile devices, eg iPads. I would always choose the print format in preference, but as I was away recently I needed some “lightweight” (literally!) selections.

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