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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, May 25, 2002

Multilayered stories provide a satisfying read

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

"WRONGFUL DEATH" by Baine Kerr, Scribner, hardback, $25

Baine Kerr's "Wrongful Death" is a sophisticated, multilayered story, one in which none of the answers are easy, none of the issues clear-cut. Kerr, who lives in Boulder, Colo., but spends part of the year at his home in Puako on the Big Island, draws on his experiences as a personal injury attorney and, intriguingly, as an elections supervisor and war crimes journalist in Bosnia and at The Hague.

There is story within story within story here, peopled by mature characters: a widowed and grieving attorney who flees to Europe to escape his pain and gains some hard-won perspective; the hard-bitten but very human woman he meets there and comes to love; the railroad worker, proud of being a successful woman in a man's world, who pays with the rest of her life for a single, terrible mistake; the loner who is horribly injured in an accident at work, and who may just be a murderer; and the young client who is driven to find out what happened to the mother from whom she was too long estranged.

The railroad engineer is June Mooney, who, one snowy night, is at the controls when her engine pins a co-worker, Dale Stillwell, between two trains, nearly killing him and leaving him brain-damaged. Guilt-ridden, she becomes Stillwell's caretaker and then his wife. Later, June Stillwell is found beaten into a coma and her moody, introspective husband is the prime suspect, though nothing is proved against him. June's daughter enlists attorney Elliot Stone to help find out the truth.

Stone is familiar with the case because he had once been engaged by the court to serve as Dale Stillwell's conservator, signing off on the settlement offer made by the railroad because Stillwell is too incapacitated to look out for his own interests. Now Stone becomes June's advocate.

Grisham, this isn't. Poor Elliot Stone's case hardly does anything so simple as to make it into court. Instead, he must first clarify in his own mind what happened, chasing down clues that only seem to complicate the case. The ending is satisfying and heartening, though, as often happens, justice comes awfully late.

Kerr's first chapter, detailing the accident, is a masterpiece of descriptive writing, calling on all the senses so that the reader is right there, in the swirling blizzard, as June inches a string of railroad cars toward her doom.

The dialogue throughout is top-notch; particularly when Stone is speaking with his lover, Quierin, the half-Dutch, half-Indonesian anthropologist who leads the exhumation team with whom he works in Bosnia. Her somewhat fractured English highlights her intelligence, her pragmatism and her magnetic sexuality.

And Stone is an attractive central character — smart but a bit of a bumbler, a man of feeling in a heartless profession, capable of things of which he is not proud, particularly as he takes stock of his life after what he has seen in Bosnia.

"Wrongful Death" is due out May 27 but is available online and in some stores now.

Two recent self-published novels by Hawai'i authors explore widely divergent landscapes:

. . .

"KHALIFAH A Novel of Conquest and Personal Triumph" by John Elray, Aardwolfe books, trade paperback, $14.95

John Elray is a technical writer who has long been fascinated by the historical roots of conflicts in the Middle East. When he stumbled on the story of the tumultuous years of conflict that followed the death of the Prophet Muhammad, he knew there was a novel there. His book follows Mu'awiya, son of Muhammad's enemy, who hopes to find a place of power in the new order but encounters other challenges instead. Elray's complex plot explores dramatic events in so restrained a fashion that it's hard to see and smell and taste the world of this 7th-century desert empire, or to get inside the heads and hearts of the characters. Still, it's an introduction to a revealing bit of history about which many of us know nothing.

. . .

"KEIKI" by Jan Tissot, Parhelion Publishing, trade paperback, $14

Jan Tissot tackles the loss of the island land and lifestyle in this novel about a law student who becomes embroiled in the fight to save Moloka'i's Maunaloa town from development (an odd choice, since Maunaloa has already been through this and it didn't play out at all like the novel). Tissot is a law school graduate and longtime criminal defense investigator who has lived on Kaua'i for the past seven years. Unrealistic pidgin dialogue and a tendency to tell, not show, is off-putting, though the plot and situations will be interesting to anyone concerned about Hawai'i's increasing urbanization.