Joanna Higgins crafts a novel that extends beyond the normal genre boundaries of the murder mystery and courtroom drama. Dead Center revolves around the Weber family. Dr. Benjamin Weber is a beloved pediatrician with a practice in Hawaii. He lives with his wife Karen. Prior to marrying Ben, Karen had two daughters, Laura and Lin, from a previous marriage. Ben and Karen also have a daughter of their own, Katherine. Ben Weber married Karen following the death of her husband, Peter Hyland. Ben was present when Peter died in Tunley, Michigan. Was it an accident? Was it murder? Now, twenty years since that fateful day, the past has caught up with Ben.
Higgins traces the agonizing path of the murder trial in Tunley, Michigan with a near-microscopic attention to detail and a playwright’s mastery of action and character. Each chapter focuses on a character, told with third-person perspective, although each character’s biases and prejudices yield the unfolding events through a skewed vision. Laura tries to remain faithful to the family, while Lin has more and more doubts about that day. Karen slowly fades, the trial proceedings making it more of a challenge to combat her cancer. The death of her ex-husband and her devout Catholicism give the story a tinge of the Graham Greene, turning the adultery into the stuff of eternal damnation. Karen’s attendance of daily masses with the bombastic and theatrical prosecuting attorney Svoboda make things even more difficult.
Because the reader spends time close to the characters’ mindsets, it makes it a challenge to divine the true events of that day. Accident? Murder? Unlike other mystery stories, the reader never knows for sure. A little bug of doubt continues to pester the reader even after the trial ends.
The action and Kabuki-esque ritual of the trial makes for exciting reading. The Weber family is simultaneously anxious and unable to comprehend the lawyerly machinations. Following the trial and the fallout, a long section entitled “Words” has Laura write a long letter she never gives her father in prison. In the letter, the harrowing consequences of the trial on the family and on Karen’s health get told with excruciating detail. Due to the lawyer’s fees, the family is driven into financial ruin. Since Ben was a respected pediatrician, the family wasn’t exactly poor to begin with. Furniture and art are sold and Karen’s resurgent cancer has the family making the choice of whether or not to accept medical assistance as charity. In this long letter, Laura tortures herself by wondering whether her father really lied about what happened in the past. Did he really murder her birth father and marry her mother? “The Hamlet thing,” as she snidely puts it.
The novel does a great service showing the reader the long-lasting agonies associated with a murder trial and coming out on the wrong side. It is not always bombast and excitement. After reading Dead Center, one recalls William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize lecture. “I decline to accept the end of man. … The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”