Sunday, July 5, 2015

Hand of Fate: Review

It is not easy to commit the perfect murder, though Frank Wimble never doubted his ability to do so.

And, apparently, Frank has. That's no spoiler--Michael Underwood makes it plain from the first sentence (above) of Hand of Fate (1981) that Frank Wimble has plotted to do away with his wife and that his wife Elspeth has disappeared. Wimble had fallen out of love with his wife of 27 years and into love with his young mistress Maureen. He'd asked, repeatedly, for a divorce, but Elspeth adamantly refused to indulge him. He would have been happy to keep things as they were--a form of marriage with his wife and all the benefits of Maureen on the side, but Maureen was getting skittish and demanding a wedding ring or she'd call it quits. 

When Elspeth disappears one September night, there is no hue and cry. Wimble first explains her absence to their housekeeper as a sudden trip to visit a sick aunt. But after weeks have passed and Elspeth still hasn't returned, rumors of foul play begin to fly through the small town and the police find it necessary to being asking questions. Wimble admits that the sick aunt was a lie, a lie told to save him the embarrassment of having to acknowledge that his wife has left him for good. Try as they might, the authorities can't find any evidence to prove Wimble wrong even after searching the house, grounds, and surrounding woods. Of course, they can't find any trace of Elspeth either.

It isn't until a dismembered hand, complete with Elspeth's wedding ring, is found six months later that Wimble is arrested and brought to trial. But without a body and proof of murder will the prosecution be able to bring a crime home to him? Wimble steadfastly claims his innocence and the prosecutors will have a difficult job proving otherwise--despite his penchant for changing his story every time a new angle is brought to light. Both the prosecution and the defense have tricks up their sleeves and Underwood spends most of the story giving us the complete courtroom drama from the opening arguments to the jury's decision....and beyond. Throughout the trial, we get lots of brief character studies of the presiding judge, Wimble's defense lawyers, the prosecuting counsel, witnesses--including the Wimble's son and daughter, and member of the jury. In some ways, it is a long drawn-out courtroom drama. But the verdict is up for grabs until the very end and it is made totally worth it by the quite spectacular ending.

Overall, this is a very good courtroom drama. Plenty of suspense waiting to see if Wimble will be declared guilty or not. And a grand finale worth waiting for. In general the character studies are interesting and incisive. Except perhaps when it comes to Justice Gentry. Nearly all of the references seem very sexist--focusing on her motherly, domestic, hen-like nature. I can't imagine similar remarks being made about any of her male counterparts. For instance:

Dame Isabelle Gentry rather liked wearing her judge's robes, not from any sense of judicial vanity, but because they hid her somewhat unstreamlined figure. (p.32)

...she settled back into her chair like a hen on its nest...(p. 33)

Mrs. Justice Gentry always took a watchful interest in this part of the proceedings. She felt like a dutiful hostess trying to put strangers at ease in her home. (p. 33)

The judge watched the jury with wry amusement. They were just like children with a new picture book. (p. 45)

The best words for Justice Gentry come from the defending counsel, Alan Coe: I have great respect for Isabelle Gentry. She possesses a more judicial mind than some of her male colleagues and she never shows her feelings until the proper moment. (p. 31) Thank goodness someone recognizes that she's a judge who got where she is through her abilities at law and not as a society hostess.

But this is a minor quibble. Once we settle down in the court proceedings, Underwood leaves such commentary on our female judge behind and gives us an intriguing inverted mystery piece. ★★★★

With a skeletal hand on the cover, this counts for the "Something Spooky" square on the Silver Vintage Bingo card.


fredamans said...

I love courtroom dramas, but wonder how long and drawn out this one is. You said it was good, but will it hold my attention in that moment or will I have to push through? I don't know. I'm very finicky when it comes to reading courtroom drama.
Great review!

Bev Hankins said...

Freda: a valid seems long to me because the courtroom scenes take up 90-95% of the book. Most of the courtroom dramas I read (like the Perry Mason book I also reviewed recently) have half or less of the scenes in the courtroom--giving a book a totally different feel.