Book Review: Under Oath, by Margaret McLean

Plot twists of court drama, witness tampering, and shocking evidence make Margaret McLean’s novel Under Oath an exciting portrayal of the trial process, while bringing to light the sordid world of criminals and the people who keep their silence in Boston’s oldest neighborhood, Charlestown.

McLean begins the story of an infamous crime boss on trial for murdering a local artist with part of the key witness’s testimony to the grand jury. The mystery hooks readers from the start when the witness says, “But, he’ll kill me because he knows.” The story continues four months later, showing the detective and prosecuting lawyer preparing a witness to take the stand.

The best part about this novel is that it shows the trial process from different points of view. The reader is able to follow the prosecuting and defense lawyers, detective, jury, key witness, and even the defendant, getting inside their thoughts and emotions. This makes for a more accurate picture of how a trial works. One sees the frustration of the jury as the trial drags on. One can understand the struggle of the detective and defense lawyer as they work for justice and are repeatedly thwarted by hidden evidence and uncooperative witnesses. The fear and desolation of the key witness, who has to go into hiding to keep her life, is palpable as she sits in her safe house with nothing to do but chain smoke and mourn the loss of her friend, while her guilt and misery gnaw on her like a dog gnaws a bone. These insights into the lives and minds of the different players in a trial help the reader understand the complicated and exhausting process.

Author Margaret McLean

Author Margaret McLean

Underneath the drama and mystery, readers can see how a real trial might work. While court is in session each day, the process of questioning and cross-examining a witness is shown, with objections from both sides and orders from the judge peppering the procedure.The procedures for adding witnesses and evidence, when a witness does not show up in court, and the role of the jury are depicted clearly among the increasingly intense plot. Actual law reasoning is used throughout the whole book. When a lawyer objects they explain why, and when the judge either sustains or overrules it, he gives the reason. The lawyers use past cases to justify what they do, and the process for using witnesses and what constitutes a fair trial is interspersed throughout the story.

Along with the actual trial, the blatant, yet silent, crime and violence of Charlestown is shown. Many reasons why the defense team is obstructed in their pursuit of justice is because of the “code of silence” Charlestown is known for. This adds an interesting element, depicting what it means to be a resident of Charlestown and how that can affect the justice system. This turns an ordinary trial story into a moral conflict between doing what is just and protecting loved ones, and what justice actually means. The novel ultimately ends with a surprising turn of events, answering the question of what justice should be in Charlestown.

I would recommend Under Oath for anyone who is interested in the crime fiction genre.

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Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking:
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