Thursday, May 11, 2006

Kate Wilhelm's Death Qualified

Our May author, Kate Wilhelm, lives in Eugene. So Oregonians can expect to read about landmarks you’ll recognize, writes Jeannine. Wilhelm is an award winning author of both mysteries/legal thrillers and science fiction. Once you try her, you may never read another by John Grisham. Death Qualified features recurring character attorney Barbara Holloway. Five years before Barbara Holloway gave up practicing law, disillusioned with a profession that put politics before justice. Then she receives a phone call, with a simple message: "I need you." Holloway is “death qualified,” meaning she is permitted to act in capital cases, and must try to keep a woman from being railroaded by the legal system. Publishers Weekly says it is “another intricate, many-layered novel, in equal parts murder mystery, science fiction, psychological study and consideration of legal ethics.” To find out more, check out Wilhelm’s web site (of all places).

When the group met to discuss Kate Wilhelm’s Death Qualified, we had a very animated discussion, writes Jeannine. As one member said “It was like three books in one,” so there was a great deal of material to explore.
In Death Qualified, Barbara Hollaway is called back by her father to the Eugene area to help a friend of his combat murder charges. Nell is accused of killing her husband sometime after he allegedly killed a female hitchhiker somewhere below the Dee Wright observatory attempting to manipulate reality and perception, using a computer program of fractals and Mandelbrots sets (click here to have these explained, or just look at the pretty pictures) to draw a susceptible mind into another way of viewing reality. Or that was their plan…. So there really are three separate books interwoven – the interconnected relationships of all the characters, the legal battle for acquittal, and the scientific skirmish for reality and sanity.
The plot was quite complex with many psychological layers, and great food for discussion. Once again tastes varied greatly – some people loved the book, some loved certain parts of the story, some hated the whole thing, and a few couldn’t get past the first few chapters. Oddly enough, it was the detailed description of the area in the mountains of Chapter 4 that really turned some people off, they thought it was a complete waste of time. One pointed to Nell's thoughts, "Talk to Grampa," as an example of “purple prose.” Many others liked the entire book except the very end, which some didn’t like because of the science fiction elements, and some didn’t like because of the high level of coincidence. One person said that the odd ending left her feeling cheated, there was no happily ever after with all conflict resolved. Even odder, not everyone could agree on whether a main character lived or died (“But I thought he died! No, he didn’t. Oh, good”). Read it and see what you think (I thought it was perfectly clear, she says with her nose in the air).
A member elucidated a main theme running repeatedly throughout the novel – how once something is started, there is no going back, and the end is seldom what was planned. This showed up in how Barbara was once again drawn into the legal profession and completely into the case; how the scientists started their research with the best of intentions but eventually descended to madness and murder; how Mike thought only to see what was on the computer disks so he could help with the case, but was completely transformed by it; and how Clive’s attempt to create a social cover escalated to violence.
Everyone seemed to agree all the characters were interesting and well-developed. As more were introduced, the list of suspects increased as well as the complex interactions of the characters revealed more and varied motives. And even the “bad guys,” who we dubbed The Cabal of Evil, turned out to be more balanced and complex than we first believed. Everyone was thoroughly fed up with Doc’s weakness of character. And most were highly suspicious of his disabled wife Jessie – several people kept expecting her to rise and walk from her wheelchair when no one was looking. We also discussed Nell’s reasoning for not divorcing Lucas in the first place; whether or not Lucas was really crazy or not; and the relationship between Barbara, her father Frank, and former boyfriend/prosecutor Tony. Barbara’s fierce idealism 5 years before had been crushed when her father and Tony worked out a plea bargain for her client without her knowledge, so her jaded view was a combination of what she viewed as a failed legal process and a personal betrayal by Tony and Frank. She was able to gradually work through these feelings and gain a better understanding of her father and his viewpoint as this trial progressed.
As you can see, there is a lot of content to this story. A great deal is left out here – the trial itself, which is as good or better than Grisham – the methods of creating suspense to move the characters’ musings along – and the way the reader is sucked in at the very beginning when the story is presented by the medicated, confused and somewhat amnesiac “Travis” as he tries to break free and remember his real self, Lucas. You won’t even hear Barbara mentioned until page 59. It’s definitely not pulp fiction.
Decorations were fairly simple with pictures of the Dee Wright observatory and scenery in that part of the Cascades, including a
picture that looked just like the scene of the murder. Law books and gavel, cassette tapes (Lucas’ diary) and floppy disks (the infamous Mandelbrot program – don’t worry, they’re being wiped), the explanation of Mandelbrots sets listed above
(picture right) and some dandy pictures of fractals (Google image search!). Refreshments were cheese(y lawyers) and (clients who are) crackers, trail mix (fruits and nuts) and Pecan sandies (because Nell was a sweet cookie? Groan. No, of course, it’s the nuts thing again. Sanity is a BIG issue in this book).

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