43 pages 1 hour read

Karin Slaughter

False Witness

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


False Witness is a psychological thriller by Karin Slaughter. It tells the story of two sisters, Callie and Leigh Collier, who are bound by a secret: As teenagers, they killed the man who was sexually abusing Callie. Twenty-three years later, the murder catches up with them when the son of the dead man reveals that he knows what they’ve done—and has it all on videotape. Karin Slaughter is a best-selling author who has written 21 novels and sold more than 40 million copies.

The edition referred to in this study guide is from HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2021.

Content Warning: False Witness and this study guide include discussions of pedophilia, rape, rape of a child, child abuse, graphic substance use, substance use disorder, murder, physical assault, sexual assault, suicidal ideation, and suicide.

Plot Summary

False Witness is told by an omniscient third-person narrator, with the focus shifting between sisters Leigh (Harleigh) and Callie (Calliope). The narrative also jumps back and forth between the book’s present, 2021, and the past, 1998. In 1998, Callie and Leigh killed Buddy Waleski. Callie had been babysitting for Buddy and his wife, Linda, taking care of their son, Trevor, for two and a half years. Buddy molested Callie the whole time.

When Callie discovered that Buddy had been videotaping the assaults and showing the videos to his friends, she threatened to tell Linda. Buddy attacked Callie, who cut him with a knife in self-defense, slashing him on the upper left thigh by the femoral artery. Instead of calling an ambulance when he started to bleed out, Callie called Leigh. Leigh finished the murder by wrapping plastic wrap around Buddy’s head.

The girls made sure that Trevor was sound asleep as they killed Buddy and disposed of his body. However, they weren’t aware that a camera in the kitchen caught their act. Trevor—who, as an adult, goes by Andrew—discovered the tape of the murder decades later, when the family was preparing to sell the old family home. Andrew/Trevor also discovered the old tapes of Buddy molesting Callie.

In the book’s present, Leigh is a lawyer. It’s 2021, during COVID. Leigh has an estranged husband, Walter, and a 16-year-old daughter, Maddy. Callie suffers from substance use disorder—she developed an addiction after a cheerleading accident as a teenager.

Leigh gets a new case from her law firm. The client, Andrew/Trevor, has asked specifically for her. At first, Leigh doesn’t realize who Andrew is, because as a child he went by Trevor. Andrew/Trevor is accused of raping a woman. He refuses to plead guilty because, if he does, it’s likely more women will accuse him of rape. Andrew/Trevor is, in fact, guilty of the string of rapes and assaults, which always include the same marker—he slices the women on the upper left thigh, close to the femoral artery, just like Callie sliced Buddy.

Andrew/Trevor wants Leigh to help him avoid a guilty verdict, even if it requires Leigh doing something illegal that could cause her to lose her license. Andrew/Trevor reveals to Leigh that he knows Callie and Leigh killed Buddy, and that he has tapes of the murder—and of Buddy assaulting Callie. If Leigh fails to get Andrew/Trevor off or botches his case on purpose—as she initially plans to—then Andrew/Trevor will release the tapes of Callie and Buddy online. Leigh knows that Callie wouldn’t be able to deal with this. Callie is already traumatized by the fact that Buddy showed the tapes to his friends in the past.

What ensues is a game of cat and mouse as Leigh tries to figure out how to get Andrew/Trevor convicted and locked away. The case is complicated when Andrew/Trevor escalates and rapes and murders another woman—this time it’s the mother of a friend of Maddy’s. Andrew/Trevor also threatens Walter and Maddy directly, motivating Leigh and Callie to take drastic action.

Maddy is, in fact, Callie’s daughter. Callie got clean for nine months to have the baby and then gave her to Walter and Leigh. Maddy has no idea, and Callie doesn’t want her to ever learn the truth. However, Callie still feels protective of Maddy. When Andrew/Trevor threatens Maddy, Callie retaliates by attacking Andrew/Trevor’s fiancée, Sidney.

Before Callie attacks her, Sidney reveals that Andrew/Trevor keeps the original videotapes in a locked safe in their house. Digitized back-ups are kept at the office of Reggie Paltz, Andrew/Trevor’s friend and private investigator. Reggie is Andrew’s “fail safe” and is to release the tapes publicly if anything happens to Andrew/Trevor—another way that Andrew/Trevor has leverage over Leigh. Leigh and Walter learn about the back-ups and kidnap Reggie, seizing the servers and laptops from Reggie’s office to secure the tapes.

Walter and Leigh find Callie. Leigh and Callie have a private conversation: Leigh tells Callie that she plans to take the tapes and turn herself in to the police—it’s the only way to lock Andrew/Trevor away. Leigh also confesses that Buddy also assaulted her as a teenager. Leigh has long felt guilty that she let Callie work for Buddy, despite her own assault. Callie and Leigh emerge from their private conversation to discover that Andrew/Trevor has taken Walter.

Callie tricks Leigh into looking for Andrew/Trevor at his new house, while Callie goes to Andrew/Trevor’s childhood home, where Buddy’s murder took place. Sidney and Andrew/Trevor are there, waiting for Callie. Callie kills Sidney and Andrew/Trevor, and then dies by suicide.

The book concludes with Callie’s funeral. Linda, Andrew/Trevor’s mother, comes by to talk to Leigh. Linda reveals that she knew all along that Callie and Leigh killed Buddy. Linda feels better off without Buddy and Andrew/Trevor; Callie and Leigh have done her a favor by killing them. Linda gives Leigh the original videotapes, which Andrew stashed at Linda’s house the night he died. Now, Leigh has the originals and the copies stolen from Reggie’s office. Callie can rest in peace; her secret is safe.

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