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Heaven is High by Kate Wilhelm

I suppose as I grow older, I get more cranky. It’s a combination of the stiffness in the joints as I try rolling out of bed and the cotton wool stuffed in my head instead of brains until I’ve managed to remain vertical for about an hour after breakfast. As what passes for a semblance of intelligence slowly asserts itself, I view the world with a slightly more benign indifference. But until then, I am prone to outbursts of vague annoyance. This morning, I am exercised by the jacket artwork for Kate Wilhelm’s new Barbara Holloway novel called Heaven is High. It shows a woman and man walking through the doors of an idealised courtroom. Naturally, we are intended to think: Barbara Holloway. . . In all the best book in this series, we have those wonderful court scenes at the end where Barbara Holloway pulls rabbits out of various bits of clothing and sets everyone on the jury shouting, “Not guilty!” Yet, when you read this book, Barbara Holloway never actually gets into a courtroom. Yes, she does enter a court building, but it’s not for the purposes of conducting a trial.

So, to put it mildly, this cover is dishonest!

In fact, what we have in this novel is a repetition of the format adopted in A Wrongful Death. In that book, Ms Holloway could not be the attorney of record because she was listed as a material prosecution witness. In this book, she acquires needy clients and understands she cannot save them by going into court. So, to obtain the evidence that may relieve their problems, she sets off to investigate on her own. This leads to a distressing turn of events.

As I mentioned in my last review, I’ve been following Ms Wilhelm’s career since More Bitter Than Death appeared in the early 1960s. She’s usually reliable storyteller and this novel is a good read so long as you enjoy brainless thrillers. For Kate Wilhelm, that’s not something I enjoy writing. I’m used to writing superlatives. So what’s gone wrong here?

The answer is the abandonment of the one feature that has made the Holloway series consistently enjoyable — the set-piece trial in the last third of the novel. Even though Death Qualified died at the end when Ms Wilhelm could not resist suddenly shifting genres, she nevertheless produced a trademark courtroom drama. Abandoning that feature is risking everything. Frankly, the notion of Barbara Holloway engaging in vaguely James Bondish adventurism in the Belize jungle is a non-starter for me. Everything about this investigation is unbelievable once she gets on the plane to leave Oregon.

Kate Wilhelm still willing to talk the talk

As by magic, she’s able to contact the key witness by telephone and, following the exchange of passwords with a driver, a meeting is engineered in the jungle. When the same driver reappears, she’s taken by the bad guys who intend to kill her. Yet, with the characteristic weakness of all villains, they allow her to walk out of their lair. In due course, an undercover US team flies her back to Oregon where she’s able to bend the Immigration Department to her will and save her client from deportation.

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such an inept drug lord (all right, drug lieutenant). Usually, they wave a baseball bat around, attach a few wires for a little light entertainment, and then bury the evidence in a swamp. Leaving Barbara in an unlocked room with a guard prone to falling asleep as evening deepens into night is not the kind of behaviour that leads to a high-ranking position in a major drug cultivation, processing and export organisation. This only happens in inept thrillers. Deus ex machina undercover drug enforcement agents are also the last resort of the uninspired. Whereas I’m more than happy to turn a blind eye to how her usual PI often seems to come up with magic evidence since that’s what fuels the cross-examinations I so like, this attempt to reposition the heroine as a potential recruit for the Avengers is a complete misjudgment. I have absolutely no interest in reading about Ms Holloway as an undercover operative ridding the world of villains. What I do enjoy is Ms Holloway obsessing over an interestingly nice point of law and finding a way to get her client acquitted.

So this is a book only for Kate Wilhelm completists and not something anyone should pick up relying either on the cover or on Ms Wilhelm’s unenviable reputation to deliver great courtroom dramas.

For a review of her latest book, see Death of an Artist.

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