I’ll begin by noting that this review is the first time I’ve ever reviewed a novel written by a friend. Pam Beason was a member of a critique group I formed a year ago, and I’ve read a part of Undercurrents (Berkeley Prime Crime, 2013), her third novel in the Summer Westin Mystery Series, when it was being written. When Pam first told me about The Only Witness, I thought it was based on a fascinating premise:
Suppose that a gorilla trained to communicate with humans using American Sign Language is the only witness to a crime. Having been an active researcher in psycholinguistics when Allen and Beatrix Gardner were training a chimpanzee named Washoe to communicate with them in ASL, the question of whether in principle a primate could effectively communicate what she had witnessed was not in doubt. The devil would be in the details, not least the use of such eyewitness testimony to persuade a judge to issue a search warrant.
Pam portrays the devilish details with consummate skill. Neema has achieved exactly the right level of ASL mastery to set the stage for Dr. Grace McKenna, the investigator running the study of animal communication, to recognize that something unusual has happened to Neema during a brief absence but not enough to immediately lead to a connection with a local kidnapping. Pam maintains an admirable balance between the plausibility of a gorilla’s eyewitness testimony and the rest of the story.
Unlike so many mystery novels, the person who puts together the pieces of evidence in the crime is a professional, a detective with the local police force. Indeed, the amateur who tries to find the criminal on her own is the teenage mother of the baby who has been kidnapped. Her efforts produce just what would be expected from an amateur: nothing but more work for the professional and misery for herself. And there are no heroics on anyone’s part in the story to induce even the most skeptical reader to break through the ice of suspended disbelief.
The Only Witness also appealed to me because the crime was not a murder. Horrendous as kidnapping is, it has not been trivialized the way murder has been in fiction and seemingly everywhere else in our culture. Also, because everything else in the story is so believable, the reader is brought face-to-face with a central scientific question. Our closest living genetic relatives in the animal kingdom have long been known to possess a high level of intelligence and since the publication of Wolfgang Koehler’s The Mentality of Apes, the ability of chimpanzees to solve problems has been understood and appreciated.
Penny Patterson’s work with a gorilla named Koko (see The Education of Koko, Francine Patterson, 1981) showed that gorillas are also capable of learning to communicate in ASL. That this research raises questions about the evolution of intelligence is another plus for the novel. Religiously motivated evolution-doubters add color and tension to the plot.
There is so much to recommend Pam’s book to serious readers as well as mystery lovers looking for a beautifully crafted crime novel. It’s also a fresh story with a realistic scientist at its heart. Grace McKenna, like so many conducting scientific research at the moment, is a serious biologist and psychologist beleaguered by desperate funding problems and limited resources,. She is accidentally caught up in a story of intense human interest. Grace finds herself caught between her desire to answer a scientific question and her obligations as a citizen and human being in righting an egregious wrong.