The plot of MALICE PREPENSE is driven by the murder of a congressman in a hotel in Oregon, leading to fine courtroom drama which takes up about the last third of the novel.
The more interesting stories, however, come from the lives of several families, going back several decades into the past and gradually becoming more and more intertwined in the present. The prologue starts with the point of view of Teddy Wendover, a once promising young man who is turned into a permanent eight-year-old child because of an accident. Lovable and loving, his physical largeness and the label of “severely mentally retarded” deeply affect the daily lives of his parents and younger brother and sister.
Their valiant attempt to maintain a stable family life is harshly interrupted when three murders start to show a pattern linking the murderer with rocks. Collecting rocks is a hobby that Teddy has picked up while accompanying his father, a land broker, on his many camping trips to inspect acreage for his clients. Teddy is arrested for murder.
Enter Barbara Holloway, a compassionate and skilled lawyer whose own family has shrunk to two, just her equally skilled father and herself. As he watches anxiously over his daughter, waiting for her to come out of the shell of grieving after a drowning, the stories of two more families intersect with the Wendovers and the Holloways and the congressman, their tragedies also starting some time in the past. The Rowlands, father and two sons, seem comfortable running their profitable ski resorts, but a mystery remains as to why the Olympic-level skier Cy never participated in the games and why he does not marry his girlfriend.
A pivotal character, John Mureau, with his noticeably scarred face, initially appears as another mystery. His family background neatly straddles the two main themes of the novel, the social and legal stigma of mental illness and the social and legal interests that compete for the wealth stored up and represented by the yet-unspoiled lands of the western wilderness.
It is a veritable pleasure to follow the heroine as she uses her professional skills as a lawyer to protect and preserve as many loving families and individuals as she can. A sharply-etched cast of secondary characters, including a character who hears gold singing to him, add to the humor and pathos of this entertaining and thoughtful mystery.