By People Staff
Updated February 03, 2003 12:00 PM

by Simon Tolkien

Fifteen-year-old Thomas Robinson, the son of a British cabinet minister, witnesses his mother’s murder in their seaside home. He is convinced that Greta, his father’s assistant, arranged the hit. A year later Greta, now Lady Robinson, his stepmother, is on trial for murder, while Thomas’s father, Sir Peter, holds his son at an emotional distance. When the killers arrive looking to dispatch Thomas, he escapes again. Or does he?

Tolkien, a lawyer and grandson of J.R.R. (The Lord of the Rings), writes what he knows. If his prose is sometimes as colorless as court testimony, his plot, full of flashbacks and psychological probings of the characters, keeps the arrow of suspicion spinning unpredictably. Is Thomas, whose adolescent declaration of love to Greta was rebuffed, making up the story for revenge? Is Greta simply a poor girl who grew up gorgeous and happened to be there to comfort Sir Peter in his hour of despair? Tolkien borrows from the best: Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, adding a dash of both Rashomon and Rebecca (with a hostile Mrs. Danvers-style maid). The twists keep coming until that last witness. (Random House, $24.95)

BOTTOM LINE: Highly convincing debut