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Death of an Artist by Kate Wilhelm

It’s one of these facts of life that, no matter who you are, you get old. As one who has already crossed the line into pensioner territory, I can look back on a life misspent. It was not always enjoyable, but it was never boring. Being a steady and consistent reader, afflicted by a completist mentality, I’ve noticed an ageing writer syndrome. That people who manage to produce sparkling prose to deliver entertaining ideas slowly lose that magic ingredient as they advance into senior citizenship. What was effortless becomes laboured. What was light and frothy becomes stodgy and dull. In recent years, this became very obvious with Jack Vance. His most recent books have been pale shadows of what might have been. This is not to say publishers are wrong to show authors with feet of clay. Everyone has bills to pay no matter how young or old. But, with some, you wish the publisher had been a little more honest and stuck a warning label on the jacket indicating the purchase was for charity rather than enjoyment. I confess I was somewhat reluctant to buy Death of an Artist by Kate Wilhelm (Minotaur Books, 2012). I have all her books and consider her early work of the highest quality. Yet there have been increasing signs of the ravages of time with the last two books being particularly disappointing. Fortunately, while this is not one of her best, it does show a more sure touch on both the plot and the delivery.

I suppose all this does force me to briefly consider what has made her such a special writer. Although it might sound slightly trite, it’s her ability to produce credible characters. Too often authors make do with a few cardboard cutouts who are moved around the scenery to match the needs of the plot. I always have the sense that she starts with the characters and then wonders what might have happened to them in the past and how they would have turned out. Quite often the context or the weather operates as a metaphorical mirror to the emotions of those who occupy the landscape. As with most of her more recent fiction, we’re in deepest Oregon, this time on the coast. One of the features of headlands is all those small valleys and steep creeks that mediate between the land and the shore. Few are easy to travel yet, with effort, they bring us slipping and sliding down to the secret beaches we loved as children. They are the rough and the smooth of life, the tracks of memory to take us back to times when we were so carefree. Living with a panoramic view of the sea is the Markov family. Marnie runs a gift shop in the small town. Her somewhat erratic daughter Stefie is an artist and her granddaughter Van is a mature student just finishing her academic studies to qualify as a doctor. Van’s young son is the joint responsibility of grandmother and granddaughter. Stefie never has been a family person albeit this has not stopped her from entering four marriages and entertaining a series of live-in men. Her latest husband is the junior partner in an art gallery. There’s just one problem. For all she produces eerily beautiful paintings, she never wants to sell. Only years later when she has grown tired of a canvas, can the gallery prise it away from her and find a buyer. This deeply frustrates her husband who would rather she cash in on her talent.

Kate Wilhelm surrounded by books

After a series of violent arguments, her husband is thrown out. Weeks later, she dies in a fall and her husband then appears with what appears to be a contract entitling him to sell her paintings. There’s just one problem. She did not sign using her own name. Naturally, the family are convinced the husband killed Stefie but they have no idea how to prove it. By chance, a retired New York homicide detective has recently moved into the town. They ask for his advice. So begins an increasingly detailed investigation into the husband’s affairs. The detective studied law before moving into the police force. He knows the problems in building a case that will satisfy a jury and keep a clever defence lawyer at bay. About halfway through the book, it becomes obvious how the husband committed the crime but knowing in your gut how it was done is not the same as proving it.

Independently, Marnie, Van and the detective decide the husband should not be allowed to get away with the murder. They separately resolve they will kill the husband if there’s insufficient evidence to take the case before a jury. Fortunately, the detective begins to make progress, but not with evidence that would either be admissible or, taken out of context, convincing to a prosecutor. However, a strategy does emerge which puts increasing financial pressure on the husband. With the contract tied up in litigation and no paintings to sell, he has unavoidable bills to pay. He’s forced into action.

Although the element of romance is not quite convincing, we can accept it as part and parcel of the difficult emotions everyone is going through as the problems of proving the homicide seem to grow worse. In the end, everything is nicely tied together. The detective’s backstory inevitably comes to the fore as we see how the events forcing his retirement have shaped his attitudes. Similarly, the details of the family are nicely paced. Even the idiosyncratic Stefie emerges as a rounded person. So, taken overall, Death of an Artist is a return to form from Kate Wilhelm and worth reading. Somewhat ironically, this also marks the last book of hers I shall be buying. She has set up her own press under the name InfinityBox Press and will only publish new material as ebooks. There will be no new books in print. This is a shame. For me, there’s no substitute for a physical book and, even though it marks me as a technological dinosaur who should know better, I shall miss reading her.

For reviews of her last two books, see:
Heaven is High
A Wrongful Death

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