Death Qualified/The Best Defense Analysis
by Kate Wilhelm

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Death Qualified/The Best Defense Analysis

(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 plot structure of Death Qualified is that of a mystery. The book opens with a dramatic escape and murder, and most of the action in the book is generated by Barbara’s efforts at detection. The murderer turns out to be the proverbial “least likely” character, though all the clues to the solution have been laid out for the reader. Once the murderer is unmasked, he turns on the detective, who needs to escape from a dangerous one-on-one confrontation in the last few pages of the book.

The science-fiction elements of the novel, by contrast, are developed as a subplot. Most of the information about the experiments is uncovered by Mike, clearly a secondary character, who routinely is whisked out of the way by Barbara’s father when she is overwhelmed with trial responsibilities. Mike is interested in chaos theory from the start. He tracks down the computer disks that hold the fractal images and figures out what they will do. Most of these activities occur offstage, while Barbara grapples with recalcitrant witnesses. When Mike finally makes a significant appearance, during the dramatic showdown between Barbara and Clive, he becomes the noble rescuer who sacrifices his life for his beloved— another stock mystery character.

Although the mystery plot drives most of the action, the book’s science-fiction framework provides the story’s lasting power. Lucas is on the run from evil scientists who use technology to enslave him. Because the scientists have given him superhuman powers, Lucas will never fit into society. If he had not been killed, he most likely would have been framed for the rape-murder that Clive committed, and society would have been likely to find such an unusual man guilty. Even if he had escaped that fate, Lucas could not have led a normal life. When Mike undergoes the same experiments, he first becomes disoriented, unable to use his normal senses; he then considers himself to be superior to normal human beings and no longer can relate to them. Readers have no reason to believe that Lucas would have felt differently.

As Lucas’ children are transformed by the same experiments, while Barbara lies weeping in her bed, readers realize that although Nell’s murder trial may have been won, the future of humanity may already be lost. By weaving this science-fiction plot around what is already a top-notch legal mystery, Wilhelm gives her novel extraordinary depth.

Although The Best Defense occurs after the events of Death Qualified, no sign of the science-fiction elements remains in the sequel. Nell’s children are not mentioned, and Mike’s disappearance becomes a death by drowning. Barbara’s character is much the same—she is still rebelling against the hypocrisies of the legal system—but her father is quite different. Rather than the semiretired lawyer who insists that he has earned the right to go to work in Bermuda shorts and tank tops, Frank is a high-priced attorney in corporate clothes, willing to challenge his firm’s conservative partners on behalf of his daughter. Although The Best Defense probably will not be as interesting to science-fiction fans as the earlier novel, it is still a page turner. Wilhelm’s feminism is more strongly apparent in the later book, as the story centers on issues of child abuse and the battered woman syndrome. In both books, however, it is significant that the victims are abused as much by cultural and legal conventions as by evil people.

Wilhelm has won many awards, including the Nebula Award for best short story for “The Planners” (1968) and “Forever Yours, Anna” (1987), as well as for best novelette for “The Girl Who Fell into the Sky” (1986). In 1977, she received a Hugo Award, a World Science Fiction Convention Jupiter Award, and second place for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, all for Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. In 1980, she received an American Book Award nomination for Juniper Time (1979).