Star Witness is about a man on trial for murder-a man recognized as one of the film industry's most successful writer/ directors, a man of almost mythic drive and talent, and someone who looks more guilty with every passing witness. Attorney Joseph Antonelli-suave, philosophical, fearless-takes up the director's defense for the murder of his wife, the actress every woman wants to be and every man wants to possess. Despite Antonelli's examination of the prosecution's witnesses, the jury finds fewer and fewer reasons to doubt. Then the director shows Antonelli the script he considers his masterpiece-a re-imagining of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane-with a visionary film director as its hero. In this story-within-a-story, the accused reveals his version of the tragedy-the secrets of his marriage, and the ominous events that led to his wife's death. In it we see the way art can imitate life-and unmask a killer even the court can't find.
Star Witness is a stunning novel about the nature of fame and the ever-confusing intersection of truth and fantasy, dream and desire-a rich tale of Hollywood unlike one you've read in many years.
About the Author
The New York Times called The Defense 'an accomplished first novel' which 'leaves you wanting to go back to the beginning and read it over again.' The Judgment was nominated for the Edgar Award for best novel of the year.
D.W. Buffa lives in Northern California. You can visit his Official Website at dwbuffa.net.
Read an Excerpt
Each time I saw her she had the same strange haunting effect on me, arousing feelings of which I had scarcely been aware. From the very beginning I knew we would be perfect together; and sometimes, when she looked at me with those lovely, intelligent eyes, I thought she knew it too. Once, while she was dancing with someone whose name I might have known but have now forgotten, she looked over his shoulder and gazed right at me. In that moment she was not with him anymore, she was with me, clinging close, dancing to music that would never stop, through a night that would never end.
It seems odd now, but I never thought of her as having her own existence, separate and apart from my own, until I read in the newspapers the first reports of her death. She was thirty-two when she died. It surprised me that she was any age at all. She never changed, not in any way I could tell. It never occurred to me that she might not always be as beautiful, as utterly irresistible, as she had always been. Dreams may die, but they never grow old.
All over the country, thousands of people who had never met her, carefully, even tenderly, placed flowers at makeshift shrines as they mourned her passing. I did not do anything like that. To tell the truth, after I put down the paper, I did not think about her at all. Even had I lived in Los Angeles instead of San Francisco, I cannot imagine that I would have joined the huge crowd that began to form outside the gated entrance to the Beverly Hills mansion where early that morning her nude body had been found floating facedown in the pool. Drawn by curiosity, but also by the sense that they knew her in ways they did not know anyone else, they kept coming, more of them all the time, until it seemed that half of Los Angeles had joined in a long silent vigil for the woman known to the world as Mary Margaret Flanders.
She was born Marian Walsh, not the kind of name that would help make someone a movie star. The rumor, which in Los Angeles, where the truth of a thing is measured by how often it gets repeated, everyone claimed to believe, was that the name Mary Margaret Flanders had been chosen to appeal to both of the usually incompatible things men wanted most in a woman. Mary Margaret seemed a rather obvious allusion to the idea of the clean, fresh-scrubbed face of the proverbial girl next door, the girl you liked, the girl you thought you might one day want to marry. What was needed was a last name that would in combination conjure up the supposed dream of every American male that the angel on his arm would also be the whore in his bed. But not, if you will, a whore of ill repute. With an instinct for the popular mind, the anonymous publicist who supposedly first suggested it, understood that the name Moll Flanders had, as it were, entered the great collective subconscious of the American culture as a symbol of all the adventure and excitement of forgivable sin. And if that were a little too psychoanalytic, or if it suggested a level of literacy higher than could reasonably be expected, there was also the fact, the importance of which no one in Hollywood was likely to undervalue, that Daniel Defoe's famous novel had after all been made into a movie.
That was the rumor, but I doubt it's true; I doubt anyone gave any serious thought at all to what Marian Walsh's new name should be. She probably chose it herself, and probably for no other reason than that she liked the way it sounded, the whole three-word thing: Mary Margaret Flanders. From what I have come to know of her since her death, I doubt she would have tried to analyze it at all, much less to anticipate what an audience, or any part of an audience, might happen to like about it. Marian Walsh had always been what most men really wanted, and she had known it better than she had known anything else.
In her first few, otherwise forgettable films, Mary Margaret Flanders, eager and erotic, was in some of the most torrid scenes ever shown in a theater. They were low-budget, artistic disasters, shot in a few short days with a script made up of three- and four-word lines; but she somehow still managed a kind of vulnerability that conveyed more of the passion of love than the dull, straightforward mechanics of sex. There are some women men want to take to bed and never want to see again; after a night with Mary Margaret Flanders you would have married her in a minute and thought you were the luckiest man in the world.
She later claimed to regret them, but those early films made her someone people began to talk about. She was someone new, someone audiences wanted to see again. She did not play the lead in any of them; she was seldom even the principal supporting actress. She was the girl whose boyfriend leaves her, the girl who falls in love with the man she later finds out is married. She played a shopgirl, a clerk, a young woman who works in an office and struggles to get by; she never played anyone either well educated or rich.
It was the genius of Stanley Roth to recognize that women liked her because they thought she was just like them, and that men liked her because they knew she was not. Stanley Roth had often been right about such things. He had become one of most powerful men in the motion picture industry because he could always see just a little bit ahead of everyone else the kind of motion picture and the kind of star the public wanted next.
Stanley Roth was part of the myth of Hollywood, and not just of Hollywood: the myth that talent always leads to success. Before he was thirty he received his first Academy Award nomination for directing a picture about teenagers growing up in the hot Central Valley of California in the early l960s. He won his first Oscar for a picture about a young boy who rescues a racehorse from the cruelty of its owner and, against impossible odds, rides it to victory. More than anyone else, Stanley Roth knew how to make the conventional something everyone thought they had to see.
The movies Roth made were all as successful as they were predictable. He gave the moviegoing public all the assurance they needed that good eventually triumphs over evil and that decent people inevitably overcome whatever adversity comes their way. There was no use pointing out that his films had nothing in common with reality; for millions of the people who paid money to see them, they were reality, or at least what reality was supposed to be. His movies made him a fortune, and when he had the money with which to do it, he walked away from the studio that had made it all possible and with two other rich and ambitious executives created one of his own. From the day Blue Zephyr Pictures opened for business it was, in the eyes of people who paid attention to the subtle shifts of power in the industry, the most important studio in town. Those who had experienced firsthand the absolute control he exercised over even the smallest details of production had to wonder, however, how long any partnership of which he was a member could possibly last.
There were those who had wondered the same thing about his marriage. Even before they were married, Stanley Roth and Mary Margaret Flanders were the leading couple in town. Whatever event they attended was by that fact alone a social success; when they hosted a gathering of their own it was, at least in Los Angeles, major news. They were among that relatively small number of celebrities mentioned rather frequently in the mainstream press, and they were often seen not only at major charitable events, but at those lavish political fundraisers in which Hollywood pretends it is made up of serious people and Washington pretends to believe it.
A photograph of the two of them at a black-tie event was a study in the subtleties of power and fame. Bright-eyed and effervescent, wearing something expensively simple, Mary Margaret Flanders would be talking to some well-known figure-a politician, an actor, a studio executive-while Stanley Roth stood a step behind or just off to the side, a look of cool detachment in his hooded half-shut eyes as if, a little bored with it all, he was appraising her performance. More interesting, and more instructive, were the faces of the people with whom she was talking. Their eyes were always on her, but you could tell they were already thinking about what they could say, what they could do, to make themselves noticed, not by Mary Margaret Flanders, but by the great Stanley Roth. Roth was the one who could decide whether to give them the chance to have everything they wanted-fame, money, power-or to make sure they would never have that chance at all.
They knew what Stanley Roth had decided about Mary Margaret Flanders, and they all knew what had happened to her. Roth had decided that she had that quality, that indefinable something that makes someone you might never notice on the street someone you can't take your eyes off on the screen. In the first picture she made for him, he gave her the starring role and spent millions promoting her as the next Hollywood sensation. The movie barely broke even, but from that point on, each of her movies made more than the one before; it was not long before the name Mary Margaret Flanders guaranteed the success of any movie she was in. She was making twenty million dollars a picture when they married, and there were those who thought that one reason he did it was to keep some of that money at home. Had Stanley Roth married entirely for love, that kind of calculation would still have crossed his mind.
I sometimes wondered what other thoughts must have crossed his ruthlessly analytical mind when he decided to marry a woman he had made famous by starring in movies in which half of America had seen her half naked. Stanley Roth could have had any woman in Hollywood he wanted. Would he have married her if he had not known that everyone who watched movies knew just how desirable she was? There was something strangely possessive in the idea of showing her that way to the public and then keeping her for your own; but then Stanley Roth was famous for taking what other people wanted, and sometimes what other people had. Whatever Stanley Roth may have thought when he married her, it was unlikely he ever imagined that it would end, just a few years later, not in divorce but in death, and that he would be the one standing at an open grave, wondering what had happened to make it all come to this.
The funeral was restricted to immediate family and close personal friends, but that apparently included every famous Hollywood star. Crowds stood respectfully outside the flagstone chapel during the service and then lined the black-paved streets as the body of Mary Margaret Flanders was taken to the cemetery. Like everything else known by the public about her, all of it was captured on film. I saw some of it that same night on the television news.
A small child, a girl of eight or nine, threw a last flower on the coffin as it was lowered slowly into the grave. A man in his mid- to late thirties with a straight, serious mouth and dark intense eyes stood next to the child, holding her hand. From the way he bent close and whispered to her just before she let go of the flower, I felt certain it must be her father, the first husband of the woman then called Marian Walsh. He was the only one with a face not famous.
Nearly twenty years older than his wife's first husband, wearing dark glasses and dressed in a dark suit, with deep furrows in his forehead and gray hair curling over the back of his shirt collar, Stanley Roth waited on the opposite side of the open grave for the flower to fall. Then, with a pensive expression, he tossed gently out in front of him a handful of dirt. It hit the lid of the casket, and a brief, barely perceptible shudder passed through him. Against his will, he took a sudden, half step back. When it was over, Roth acknowledged with a silent nod the condolences of the other mourners as one by one they slowly turned and walked away, until, finally, he was left alone at the graveside. I wondered what he called her, what name he used. I thought it must have been Mary Margaret. It was prettier than Marian, and I think for him it must have seemed more real.
I watched him, the husband of Mary Margaret Flanders, standing all alone at the side of her grave in the dying light of the late Los Angeles afternoon, watched as it dissolved into black. That was the last thing you saw, that long fading shot of the grief-stricken husband saying his final good-bye to the woman everyone loved. It was the kind of shot with which Stanley Roth had ended some of his best-known films.
Like most things that did not concern me directly, I forgot about Mary Margaret Flanders and Stanley Roth after I turned off the television set. I was just about to have dinner with Marissa Kane, the woman with whom I had been living for a little more than a year. That gives perhaps a false impression of what we were. If we had been much younger when we met-in our twenties or even our thirties-we might have become lovers and then, if we had been really quite fortunate, we might have become friends. We met instead when she was already a divorced woman with grown children and I had long since given up all thought of anything that could last.
We became friends, Marissa and I, when I came from Portland to try a case in San Francisco. Eventually we became more than friends, but just what name to put on what we had become was never easy to decide. I was not in love with her, not the way I remembered what that had been like; and I am almost certain she was not in love with me. Perhaps we had lost the capacity for the kind of passion that cannot see beyond itself; that believes it is the only thing that matters; that is convinced that it is the one thing that can never die. But we cared about each other, and as best we could we looked after each other. We even, to a point, understood each other. When the trial that had brought me to San Francisco was finally over, it did not take me long to decide that I did not want to leave, that I wanted to stay here, with her, for as long as it lasted. We lived in the house Marissa had owned for years: a chocolate-colored shingle-sided house on a steep hillside above the village of Sausalito with a view of the bay.
After I turned off the television, we had dinner, and after dinner, we went for a walk. A few restaurants were still open in the village, and from the doorway of a neighborhood bar the smoky sound of a jazz trumpet echoed out into the night. We kept walking, along the sidewalk and across the street, down by the shore where the water washed up against the rocks and the lights of San Francisco set fire to the bay.
We came here every night, an evening ritual, a last look across at the city, at San Francisco, the place where long before anyone had heard of Los Angeles, all the adventurers in the world, blown by the winds of heaven, had come, drawn by the chance to make their fortunes, and by making their fortune become someone else. That was why I had come, or why I had stayed; not to make my fortune, but to become someone else, someone I did not so much mind being. That was Marissa's gift: the way she made me feel about who I was.
"I don't like Los Angeles very much," said Marissa after I made some vague remark about the funeral of Mary Margaret Flanders. She slipped her hand inside mine. "It isn't really a place-not like this," she explained, raising her almond shaped eyes toward the city. "People come here-at least they used to come here-because they dreamed about San Francisco; people go to L.A. because they dream about themselves."
Under a sky filled with every star ever seen, the white lights of the city, like the souls of sinners released from perdition, burned bright in the darkness, lighting up the black invisible waters of the bay with an image of itself, an illusion that seemed as real as the city itself. It held you there, that late-night view of the city, and the more you looked at it, the more certain you were that it belonged to you in ways that it could never belong to anyone else.
We turned and started the slow walk home. Somewhere in the distance a woman's laughter broke the nighttime silence, and then, a little farther on, the sound of that same jazz trumpet prowled through the dark, nearly deserted street.
"Do you like it there-L.A.? You probably do, don't you?" asked Marissa as we walked along, holding hands, climbing the street to the house.
I laughed. "Why? Because I dream about myself?"
With her other hand she took hold of my sleeve and gave it a playful tug. "No," she said seriously. "Because you're always thinking about the next place you want to be, the place you haven't been."
"I like it here," I protested mildly.
"That isn't what I mean," she said with a cryptic smile.
When we reached the house we tumbled inside and went right to bed. Just before I fell asleep I thought again about Stanley Roth, bathed in the golden haze of the afternoon sun as he stood watching, while the child across from him threw a flower into his dead wife's grave. It was a fragmentary glimpse of something barely remembered, a quick glance backward at something I had seen early that evening. I did not know anything about Stanley Roth. He was someone vaguely famous married to a woman I never knew, both of them part of a world I knew only from a distance and only from the outside. When he woke me up in the middle of the night, I had at first no idea who he was or what he might want.
The voice, a voice I had never heard before, might just as well have said the name John Smith for all it meant to me.
"This is Stanley Roth," he said again.
I did not remember anyone named Stanley Roth; I certainly had not given anyone of that name my home telephone number.
"This number is unlisted," I said rather irritably. "How did you get it?"
"This is Stanley Roth. Do you know who I am?"
The voice was brusque and impatient. He had called me in the middle of the night and seemed to think I was somehow wasting his time.
"No," I replied. "Don't you?"
There was a dead silence at the other end. At any moment I expected to hear him hang up. It was the only reason I did not do it first.
"My apologies, Mr. Antonelli," he said presently in a clear, firm voice that was all business. "My name is Stanley Roth. My wife-perhaps you've heard of her-was Mary Margaret Flanders, the actress."
Turning on the lamp, I swung my legs around and sat on the edge of the bed.
"I'm terribly sorry, Mr. Roth. It's late, and I didn't realize..."
"Mr. Antonelli, I wonder if you might come to Los Angeles tomorrow. There's a matter I'd like to discuss with you. I know it's rather short notice, but it's really quite important. I'll send my plane up. My office will make all the arrangements."
He was used to having his way, and I think it never occurred to him that I might say no.
"What is it you want to see me about, Mr. Roth?"
"I'd really rather discuss it in person," he replied as if that should be the end of it.
And it almost was. I discovered that I was not as immune to the attraction of celebrity as I had thought. With a conscious effort I resisted the temptation to agree immediately to what he asked.
"I'd be very glad to see you, Mr. Roth," I said, taking refuge in formality, "but I can't possibly come there tomorrow."
Again he fell silent, but this time I did not expect him to hang up. He was thinking about what he was going to do next. When he finally spoke, there was a sense, not of panic exactly, but of concern, in his voice.
"What if I come there? Is there someplace we could meet privately? If I come to your office, someone is going to find out, and right now, I can't afford..."
He was talking faster, beginning to ramble, and, I thought, about to lose control.
"Are you in some kind of trouble, Mr. Roth?" I interjected, trying to sound as calm as I could.
The only response was a long, brooding silence. He had to be in trouble, serious trouble. Why else would he have called? No one, not even the supposedly enigmatic Stanley Roth, called a criminal defense attorney at midnight unless they were. How many times before had I been called in the middle of the night by people I did not know, people who could not wait until morning because they were afraid they might go crazy if they did not do something right away. I was still in my twenties, just out of law school, taking any case I could get, hoping I could make enough to cover the rent in the dreary two-room office in a nearly vacant Portland building, when those late-night calls started to come. Sometimes it was a drunk slurring his words from a pay phone in the jail; sometimes, as I began to acquire a reputation as a lawyer who almost never lost, the calls came from people accused of far more serious crimes. It was not long before I was the nighttime confidant of murderers, rapists, and thieves. Even after I could afford to take only the cases I wanted and had a number only a few people were supposed to know they still managed to call, desperate to talk, afraid to be alone with what they had done or what everyone was about to think they had done.
Rich or poor, famous or completely unknown, it did not matter: There was one thing they all had to say. Perhaps it was simply hearing themselves say it out loud that made them feel better. In that respect, at least, Stanley Roth was just like everyone else.
"I didn't do it, Mr. Antonelli; I swear I didn't."
They all said it, that simple, straightforward declaration of their innocence, but there was something about the way Stanley Roth said it that made me wonder whether the words had come to him unprompted, or whether he had recalled them from the memory of things he had seen, things he had heard, and perhaps even things he had written, in the movies he had made. I saw him again, standing at her grave, the last mourner left, husband and wife, director and star. And now I wondered, not what name he had called her, but whether in that last silent good-bye he had spoken any words about the way she had died or the reason she had been killed. All I knew was what everyone knew: The nude body of Mary Margaret Flanders had been found floating facedown in the outdoor swimming pool, a single silk stocking stretched around her neck, apparently used to hold her fast while a knife blade slashed deep across her throat.
"Have the police talked to you?" I asked, twisting the telephone cord between my fingers. "Or, rather, have you talked to the police?"
"Yesterday, the day before the funeral," said Roth in a voice that now seemed tired. "They want to see me again. I think they're going to arrest me. They think I murdered my wife. I need your help, Mr. Antonelli. I'll pay you anything you ask."
I did not go to Los Angeles the next day. Stanley Roth was used to having people drop everything to do what he wanted. If I was going to represent him, I wanted him to know from the beginning that I would not take orders from him or anyone else. I wanted to establish a certain distance, an independence. I was the lawyer; he was the client: I decided what I was going to do and when I was going to do it.
What a fool I was. I should have known that it would be impossible to treat Stanley Roth the same way I treated anyone else. I should have known that this was going to be a murder case unlike anything I had ever seen before or would ever see again. I should have known from the moment I got involved that it was going to change things, including things about myself, in ways I could not then have imagined. Because of Stanley Roth I was about to become not only the best-known lawyer but perhaps the least understood man in America. But then, how could I have known-how could anyone have known-when I boarded the private plane that would take me to Hollywood that before it was all over one of the most talked-about movies of all time would be a movie about me.
--from Star Witness by D.W. Buffa, Copyright © 2003 by D. W. Buffa, published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Traveling a lot the only way I get to enjoy a book is by audio...this audiobook/book is excellent. Keeps you guessing the whole way through and surprises you at the end. For me it has more than enough mystery and plot turners, but also a little romance, that no matter which you like - you will love this book!! Once you heard the audio you will be ready to make the time to read the book...and then read the beginning books to this series.
She is a world famous movie star married to the director who gave her a break that turned her into an American icon. When she is found murdered in her swimming pool, a stocking around her neck and her throat slit to the bone, the husband calls famous defense attorney Joseph Antonelli because he thinks the police will arrest him for the crime of premeditated murder. Joseph meets his client Stanley Roth, a few minutes before the police arrest the director.................. Antonelli bails him out and agrees to defend him but there is no evidence that he can find that will exonerate his client. The only three people on the estate at the time of death were Stanley, the victim and the maid. Stanley¿s clothing in his hamper had his wife¿s blood on it and there is no evidence that Mary Margaret Flanders had any enemies. The trial is long, hard and nerve-wracking because for once Antonelli believes he is defending an innocent man........................ STAR WITNESS is a great legal thriller, one that takes readers into the heart of Hollywood where appearances are everything and motives seem murky. The reader see the toll a high visible murder trial takes out of a lawyer, who in this case at least, defends a client more interested in creating another movie, certain he will be found innocent. It is fascinating to watch how a prosecutor could make a defendant look guilty with purely circumstantial evidence. D.W. Buffa keeps readers engrossed in this fulfilling drama that ends in a way nobody could have predicted....................... Harriet Klausner