Dead Center, by Joanna Higgins. Published January, 2011. The Permanent Press. Hardcover. 272 pg.
To convincingly craft characters and flesh out those identities in a satisfying, complete way must be one of the most complex aspects of fiction writing. And what of the plot? Surely that must be present in a memorable piece of fiction as well. In any English class, don’t we discuss characters and plot? Can one exist without the other? Not really. When I interview authors I’m always curious which comes first, the idea for a character or for the story.
Author Joanna Higgins, fills Dead Center with layered characters and an intriguing storyline. Higgins has fictionalized the true case of a Pennsylvania man who gets indicted for murder two decades after the event had been declared an accident. She attended the trial about ten years ago. Dead Center is part court-room thriller, part complex family drama. Higgins delves into the minds of each family member: Karen, the devoted wife; Laura, the forgiving daughter; Lin, the skeptical daughter; and Ben, innocent pediatrician and father or man concealing harmful secrets?
Any trial and particularly one for murder truly tests any family. Lin and Laura have always trusted Ben, their dad. They hardly questioned the death of their father so many years ago when they were small children. Now as adults, surely the young women will have different perceptions of what happened as the prosecution and defense bring forward evidence and witnesses. Was the death while out hunting the accident that it seemed back then? Why now? When a family has bonded over all these years will this new charge tear them apart?
The novel moves from court room to family members with venerable ease through its varied cadence and thorough and perceptive character development. The two daughters are doing exactly what one would expect during a crisis like this. Laura seeks comfort in food and religion. Lin takes an analytical approach by questioning every aspect of the potential culpability of her dad and how her life might have been with her biological father instead of him.
A painful certainty rushed through Lin. Svoboda would win, regardless of her dad’s innocence or guilt, because he was wrathful. Emotion winning out over reason. Just as it probably had in the clearing that late afternoon when her father had died.
Karen quietly unravels. She slowly gives up. She’d already been fighting cancer and it seems that this newer battle is way too much for her mind and body to endure. She refuses food. For Higgins this is what Karen thinks: “Blame, regret, hatred, guilt. Hardly room in that vortex for love. Love which absorbed it all, transmuting it into light.” Dead Center is as much about the strength of love and implicit trust as anything else.