"Booklist" (Starred Review) 2002. Mary Frances Wilkens.

Don’t let the author’s last name confuse you, for there are no Hobbits in this debut novel by the grandson of J. R. R. Tolkien, only a wonderful story of family, relationships, and suspense. At the center is Thomas Robinson, the 16-year-old son of British defense minister Sir Peter Robinson and his wife, Lady Anne. Mother and son had always been close, having remained at their country home while Sir Peter attended to business matters in London with the aid of his personal assistant, Greta Grahame. Early on, readers learn that Lady Anne was murdered and Thomas was a witness, although he was hiding at the time. Months later, the two malefactors return to find Thomas, for they somehow learn that he was present during their crime, and in the process, they implicate Greta as a coconspirator. Convinced that his father’s ever-present personal assistant - who eventually marries the widowed Sir Peter - was behind the death of his beloved mother, Thomas takes it upon himself to prove it. His obsession with Greta causes an even deeper rift with his father, who already sees his son as a sniveling, dreamy-eyed romantic rather than the reasoned, cool man he wishes Thomas to be. Part English cozy, part family saga, part courtroom drama, this genre-bending work of fiction is touching and enchanting.

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"Library Journal" 2002. Susan Clifford Braun.

With an easily recognizable surname, a formidable Oxford education, and a successful career as a London barrister, the grandson of the author of Lord of the Rings is bound to create a stir with this his debut novel. Sir Peter Richardson has it all: a country house, a promising career in government as the British minister for defence, and a young, bright and very ambitious personal assistant, Greta Grahame.Sir Peter's fatel flawis that he neglects his wife and young son, Thomas, while focusing on his job and his personal assistant. Greta is from the working class, and Lady Anne resents her as much as Greta envies Lady Anne's finery, social postition, and husband. Soon, there is a break-in at House of the Four Winds. and the intruders kill Lady Anne while Thomas watches from a nearby hiding place. Meanwhile, Greta seizes the opportunity to become the next Lady Richardson. Still grieving for his mother and certain of Greta's involvement in her death, Thomas convinces the police to pursue the case and does a bit of sleuthing on his own. Tolkien's skill as a storyteller is worthy of notice in this taut, well-paced legal thriller. The excellent courtroom drama and well-drawn, believable characters make this a good choice for popular fiction collections.

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"USA Today" 2003. Carol Memmott.

Final Witness is a courtroom drama that centers on the murder of Lady Anne Robinson, wife of Britain's Minister of Defense Sir Peter Robinson. The prime suspect is "the other woman" in Sir Peter's life. 
I for one can't resist a murder mystery in which the crime is blamed on the person who later marries the victim's spouse. I find it eminently satisfying as a plot device, and Final Witness briskly rolls back and forth between the trial and the two years leading to it.
Sir Peter is a typical politician who has no time for his family. His personal assistant, Greta, is not only gorgeous but capable and ambitious as well. Whether or not it's "part of her plan," she becomes indispensable to Sir Peter and eventually takes his wife's place in his affections.
Anne and Peter's teenage son, Thomas, takes after his sensitive mother, and he has a strained relationship with his mostly absent father. Meanwhile, some creepy encounters of a distinctly erotic nature between Thomas and Greta keep one guessing as to her intentions. When Anne is murdered, a terrible rift develops between Thomas and his father, and it continues as a suspect is arrested and tried. "He said, she said" is the name of the game as Thomas and Greta are pitted against each other for Sir Peter's affection and loyalty.

Tolkien's writing has a timeless quality, in part because technology such as DNA analysis plays such a small part in the resolution of who killed Anne. But Tolkien's writing also has the haunting undertones of other great masters of mystery. The House of the Four Winds, Lady Anne's family estate, brings to mind Daphne Du Maurier's Manderley in Rebecca, and the story itself could have been made into a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It has the atmospherics of Suspicion. (Its glamorous star, Joan Fontaine, would have been a perfect Lady Anne.) 
Tolkien also employs the use of a simple piece of evidence around which much of the story revolves. Hitchcock used a cigarette lighter in Strangers on a Train and a necklace in Vertigo. Tolkien provides the same plot device with Lady Anne's locket. 

Though Final Witness takes place in modern times, the story and its characters could easily be transferred to other time periods.

Those obsessed with hobbits and elves will find no satiation here. But those who appreciate a classic crime novel will be satisfied.

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"People Magazine" 2003. Edward Karem.

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.

BOTTOM LINE: Highly convincing debut.

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"Los Angeles Times" 2003. Mark Rozzo.

Simon Tolkien, as the jacket of this PBS-ready mystery tells us, is the grandson of the legendary creator of "The Lord of the Rings." Yet there's nothing remotely wizardly about the present Tolkien's work. Instead of hobbits and talking trees, what we get is a readable and appropriately overheated novel about that evergreen British preoccupation - class - wrapped up in the guise of a courtroom whodunit: 

Lady Anne Robinson, the wife of Defense Minister Peter Robinson, has been shot to death in the House of the Four Winds, the family's ancestral manse. And the murder looks more like a rubout than a bungled burglary, at least from what teenage son, Thomas, saw, hiding behind a bookcase while the killers did their foul deed.

What ensues is a cozy yarn about seriously conflicted family loyalties, the ripe contrast between town and country (Thomas' aloof father spends all his time in London) and the irreconcilable differences between aspiration and privilege. The prime suspect, standing trial throughout (Tolkien is himself a barrister), is the newly minted Lady Robinson, formerly Greta Grahame, Peter's sex-bomb assistant. Greta is both conniving witch and sympathetic working-class babe. Is it simply that Greta "doesn't know her place"? Or is she a ruthless plotter who has usurped Lady Anne, enacting a Shakespearean power grab?
Matters are, of course, complicated by the fact that Thomas is hopelessly fixated on Greta's cleavage while also wanting her pilloried. And then there's the turncoat Peter, who always leaves Thomas isolated and resentful. Is Greta really a killer, or is the overstimulated Thomas on the warpath? 

"Final Witness" is more middle of the road than Middle Earth, and it probably won't inspire any role-playing games or Hollywood blockbusters, but Tolkien does pull off this mystery - half Christie and half Grisham - with a certain panache.

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"Daily Mail" 2003. Eithne Farry.

Simon Tolkien is the grandson of J.R.R.Tolkien, of Lord of the Rings fame. But for years Simon resisted the temptation to write fiction, concious of his grandfather's literary legacy. Instead, he trained as a barrissister - and it is the world of courtrooms and criminals that provides the inspiration for his first novel.

The Stepmother is a very British thriller; it deals with notions of class, privilege and inheritance, but it also provides a healthy dose of earthy sexual tension to beef up all that blue-bloodedness.

Written in a crisply measured style,it captures the fraught atmosphere of a high profile murder trial, where the victim is a Lady and the suspect is the wife of the Minister of Defence, Sir Peter Robinson. The star witness is Thomas, the teenage son of Lady Anne and Sir Peter, who witnessed his mother's death at their ancestral home - the magnificent House of the Four Winds, in Suffolk. Stepmother Greta is an intriguing character, seductively beautiful, with 'green cat's eyes' and a mysterious past.

As the trial progresses, snippets of Greta's early life are revealed to the reader, throwing delicious doubt on her guilt or innocence. Definitely a page turner.

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"Washington Post" 2003. Patrick Anderson.

When J.R.R. Tolkien's 43-year-old grandson, a London lawyer by profession, publishes his first novel, two questions must be asked: First, can Simon Tolkien write? Second, if he can, does his work resemble that of his grandfather, who gave us "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings"? The first question is easily answered: "Final Witness" is a remarkably skillful novel, brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed. The answer to the second question is more complicated.

At the most obvious level, "Final Witness" is a legal thriller - ripped from tomorrow's headlines, as it were - and its influences would seem to be not "The Hobbit" but Agatha Christie's "Witness for the Prosecution" or Scott Turow's "Presumed Innocent." Its plot is classic in its simplicity; only four characters really matter: Sir Peter Robinson, who is England's minister of defense; his first wife, Lady Anne Robinson; their son, Thomas, who is 16; and Sir Peter's second wife, Lady Greta Robinson. We know from the first page that Lady Anne has been killed and that Thomas has accused his stepmother of plotting her murder. What follows is not only Lady Greta's murder trial in Old Bailey but a battle between a cunning young woman and a determined boy for Sir Peter's heart and soul.
Sir Peter is a highly successful politician, but far less successful as husband and father. Lady Anne hates politics and prefers to spend her time at her ancestral home, House of the Four Winds, on the coast of Suffolk, tending her roses and raising her son. Thomas is a dreamy boy, lost in books and fantasies, and a great disappointment to his no-nonsense father, who keeps a house in London and visits his wife and son infrequently. Little wonder that Sir Peter is drawn to his ambitious and efficient personal assistant, Greta Grahame. From our initial glimpse of her, we are wary of Greta: "Looking at her, at that moment, you'd have had to say that she was just like a cat. A sleek, well-cared-for white cat with a pair of glittering green eyes."
One night, two men break into the country house and kill Lady Anne. Thomas hides in a "priest hole" - built centuries earlier so Catholic priests could elude Protestants - and sees the killers. He tells police that he had seen one of the men before, with Greta in London. Sir Peter bitterly rejects his son's story and leaves him with the housekeeper; he defiantly marries Greta on the day she is charged with murder. We soon realize there are only two possibilities: Either Greta plotted the murder or Thomas is lying.
There is evidence against Greta (How did she get the dead woman's locket? Who called her the night of the murder?), but she has explanations, and scenes of her childhood with an abusive father create sympathy for her. We come to have suspicions of Thomas, too. When he first met Greta he became infatuated with her. Just how bitter was he when she laughingly rejected him? And the boy has a morbid side: On a trip to London, he loves most the Tower ("That's where they put the heads of the executed prisoners"), and a production of that most bloody of plays, "Macbeth." Even his mother is concerned: "Her son's preoccupation with darkness and death troubled her." There is no doubt that Thomas hates Greta; the question is whether he hates her because she caused his mother's death, or simply because she replaced his mother.

Tolkien keeps us guessing until the "final witness" at the end of the book, and in all this he has written a skillful but essentially conventional thriller. Yet I kept glimpsing touches of fantasy that his grandfather would surely have approved. For one thing, this is at bottom the story of a woman who is (or is charged with being) that staple of fairy tales, a wicked stepmother. The story also features a priceless sapphire, stolen in India by Lady Anne's grandfather and equipped with a dying man's curse. When Thomas and his best friend search for evidence against Lady Greta, we are told they "believed in chivalry and heroism" and were on a "crusade," not unlike young men in "The Lord of the Rings." And there is the curious matter of the juror who resembles Margaret Thatcher: "the furious forewoman," who looks like she wants "to attack someone with her black leather handbag" and whose glares intimidate even the judge. As best I could make out, she was the Wicked Witch of the West.

I found little to criticize in "Final Witness." The outcome turns on a combination of police incompetence and coincidence that might strike some as weak, but by then I was far too enthralled to complain. The novel is a delight to read and deserves the success it will surely achieve.