Death Qualified/The Best Defense Critical Essays

Kate Wilhelm


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

By the time Kate Wilhelm wrote these mysteries, she had more than thirty-five books to her credit, including novels, collections of short stories, and novellas. In Death Qualified and The Best Defense, Wilhelm continues to push the edges of genre fiction, spinning into legal thrillers the social commentary one might expect to find in science fiction, as well as the narrative sleight of hand and red herrings typically found in mysteries. As she incorporates these various devices, she does not sacrifice the taut drama of the skillful cross-examination and the hostile judge.

Death Qualified overtly combines elements of the mystery and science-fiction genres. The mystery is the dominant genre, as it is in The Dark Door (1988), one of Wilhelm’s “Charlie and Constance” mysteries. Both books are structured as mysteries, but the cause of the mystery is a science-fiction element (an alien experiment gone awry in The Dark Door and a human experiment gone awry in Death Qualified). Death Qualified blends the genres more successfully, perhaps because the scientist characters are greedy enough to fill the role of mystery villain.

The scientists do not directly murder Lucas Kendricks: The killer is a neighbor, Clive Belloc, who wants to avoid blame for an earlier rape and murder of his own. Because the scientists have held Lucas prisoner for years, however, making him appear to have abandoned his family, he is an ideal scapegoat. Lucas developed superhuman abilities through the experiments, and he is showing off these abilities when Clive finds him. Clive thinks he is a “devil” and does not hesitate to shoot. Were it not for the scientists, therefore, Lucas would not have been killed.

Fans of Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976) will recognize another theme in Death Qualified, that of technological advances creating children who are alien to their parents. Instead of cloning, however, the technology is a computer program, based on fractal mathematics, that allows sensitive individuals to experience reality in ways different from those of other people. After running the program, Barbara’s lover, Mike, is forever separated from her. His new abilities lead him to pity her, and although he uses them to save her life, he disappears immediately afterward. After Mike dies, Nell’s children find the disks; they too are changed into something other than human. At the end of the book, there is no sign of hope. Barbara falls asleep alone, weeping.


(The entire section is 1054 words.)