Please welcome Marianne Wesson, legal thriller author extraordinaire!
Review and synopsis of CHILLING EFFECT:
Chilling Effect by Marianne Wesson
Publisher: University Press of Colorado ISBN: 0870817876
Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader
In this intelligent and timely legal thriller Wesson pulls out all the stops to make a great case regarding the effects of unrestricted free speech. Boulder attorney Lucinda Hayes is hired to take on the case of Peggy Grayling, a woman whose daughter was raped and killed by a mentally disturbed man, and who also believes that a certain child pornographic snuff film was also directly responsible for the crime. So not only is Cinda taking on the distributor of the film but, incidentally, the whole entertainment industry as well, making what follows nothing short of spectacular. And as Cinda becomes more involved in the case, the disturbing aspects of it not only begin affect her work, but her personal relationships as well.
This thought-provoking novel is both highly entertaining and intensely suspenseful. Both sides of the coin are equally represented, but Cinda's position that the First Amendment should not automatically free one from responsibility of the effects of such an unrestricted law is put forth with such conviction, that it's difficult not to at least consider the argument. With superbly drawn characters, a story with grit and purpose, and a final denouement worthy of intense consideration, this latest mystery from Wesson comes highly recommended. But do be warned that some of the content is very disturbing, however, in Wesson's assured hand, never gratuitously so.
1. You've taken on some pretty controversial issues in each of your legal thrillers, and this one in particular-the 1st Amendment! Explain to our readers a bit about your argument in this instance, how you reached your conclusions, etcÖ
I donít like to think of a novel as an argument, exactly, because the story, the narrative, is always the main thing in fiction. But certainly, perhaps more than my other books, CHILLING EFFECT has a legal argument embedded in it. Itís the argument that Cinda has to make over and over: to her partner Tory to get her to agree that they should accept the case, to the judge to even get her case to trial, and to the jury at the end of the trial. The argument has to do with the proper balance between the freedom of speech guaranteed by the first amendment, and our legal systemís notion of responsibility for the creations that one puts out into the world. The particular form the argument takes is this: the first amendment does not forbid a lawsuit against the maker of a violent pornographic videotape, seeking damages for the death of a child whose killer was inspired by the movie. This general first amendment argument is one that I have made before in various law journals and at scholarly conferences, but I wanted to put it into the setting of a story to make more clear what is at stake.
2. What inspired you to make this particular issue a focal point in a novel?
I have discovered that with each of my books, the task of writing has been related to my own need to comprehend some difficult issue a little better. No matter how much I have thought and written about a legal issue in an abstract way, I always find my own understanding is deepened if I can invent a world in which the resolution of the issue makes a difference that can be tasted, felt-- experienced in a direct way-- by a character that I care about.
3. Your argument makes a great deal of sense, but do you think it's really feasible to separate the issue in such a way as to not negatively affect the original intent of the law?
Sure, I have persuaded myself that my argument is correct. (Of course, like Cinda when in the book she reflects on her own abilities as an advocate, I have to admit that it is absolutely necessary to convince yourself of an argument before trying to persuade a jury of itóor your readers. It is sometimes possible to outsmart yourself if you are a better advocate than you are a skeptic.) But notice that I am not arguing that every plaintiff who claims that she was injured by some movie or book or advertisement should win a lawsuit against its maker. The law is rather exacting about what one has to prove in these circumstances, and it should be. Iím only arguing that the first amendment and the idea of freedom of speech should not absolutely prohibit the plaintiff from trying to make her case.
4. Have you received any type of backlash from the legal community for your views?
I wouldnít say backlash, but certainly some resistance. Letís just say that I havenít persuaded everyone yet. I was once invited to make my arguments to a convention consisting mainly of entertainment industry lawyers, and that was certainly a hard sell. The day on which I was to speak began with what I think of as the Display of Venerated Objects: film clips from Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather and Easy Rider and other films that were thought daring and borderline obscene in their day, but are now considered to be great works of art. The implicit message seemed to be that if my view prevailed, such works would never have been created. (I think they are wrong about that, of course.) I believe the conference organizers had me sized up as something along the lines of the Princess of Effing Darkness, and wanted me on display as an example of the dangers their industry faces. But thatís what makes this kind of writing a challenge for me. Itís boring to try to persuade folks of something that nobody disagrees with. And I will say that some of those in attendance sought me out privately afterward and told me they agreed with me, at least in part. (They didnít usually specify which part.)
5. In a previous novel, you focused on the death penalty, another controversial issue, explain your viewpoint and how it related to your fictional character.
In RENDER UP THE BODY, my first book, Cinda has just left her job as a sex crimes prosecutor to become a rape victimsí advocate when she is appointed to represent a death row inmate convicted of a rape-homicide; her new client insists that he is not guilty of the crime. I thought creating this situation, in which all of her loyalties, personal and professional, are put into tension with one another, would be very interesting. Conflict is, of course, at the heart of any good story, but I think the conflicts inside a character can be more intriguing than the typical external hero-villain conflicts of much crime fiction. Cinda finds that she must argue that her clientís conviction ought to be set aside, even though she cannot point to any specific legal error that was committed at his trialóitís simply a matter of innocence. Of course many of her old colleagues from the DAís Office and the Rape Crisis Center regard her as a traitor.
6. As a former prosecutor, this viewpoint probably didn't set well with the legal community, had you any direct experience in which you had to face this issue head-on?
Yes, the story of RENDER UP THE BODY was inspired by a case I had at the time, in which I was representing a California death row inmate, Jerry Frye. RENDER UP THE BODY was dedicated to him. It was not, however, an account of his case or of our relationship, which were very different in many ways. He was not accused of a sex crime, for one thing. And he is still alive. And yes, I had been in my earlier career a (federal) prosecutor. I did not, however, prosecute any death penalty cases, as this was long enough ago that there was no federal death penalty. I have also been an advocate for victimsí rights, although Iíve never worked in a rape crisis center. I had good information from friends who had, however.
7. Your heroine, Cinda Hayes, a defense attorney, seems to always be attracted to the under-dog. As a former prosecutor, this is an interesting direction to come from. Did you see any cases that influenced you to write from this perspective, as opposed to a prosecutor's perspective?
Many of the crimes I prosecuted had victims who had been outrageously taken advantage of by heartless and remorseless bullies. Most of these victims were women. I always felt that I was working for the underdog. I think most of us lawyers are, from early in professional life, either underdog- or overdog- advocates. I was always for the underdog, although I admit I can get a little tired of the sanctimony or judgment that can sometimes emanate from that community.
8. Your novels take place in Boulder, CO., a more liberal type of area than the general state itself, does this influence your perspective at all?
Actually I no longer live in Boulder; my husband and I raise llamas on a mountain ranch a little ways outside of town. I still work there, teaching at the Law School of the University of Colorado. But yes, Boulder is a very vivid and lively place, easy and fun to parody. Thereís some gentle poking fun at Boulder in all of my books; in CHILLING EFFECT Cinda observes that the circus never comes to town because it just canít compete. But I also have a great affection for its unconventionality, its big (if perhaps goofy) heart, and its embrace of many very different kinds of people.
9. With the re-election of Bush, and the possible appointments of some new Supreme Court Justices, what direction do you see the law headed towards?
Iím not good at making these kinds of predictions, and actually neither are most presidents. Itís worth remembering that Earl Warren was appointed by Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Blackmun by Richard Nixon, John Paul Stevens by Gerald Ford, and David Souter by the first President Bush. Lifetime appointment can make a Justice suddenly aware that he or she has always wanted to show an independent streak, and thatís good. Even such Justices and Scalia and Thomas have often voted against the Bush Justice Department on certain matters, although most commentators overlook those very interesting instances. Anyway, I donít know. I think the election is too recent for punditry to be a very promising enterprise.
10. And finally, what's next for Cinda Hayes, fighter for the under-dog, independent and true to herself, woman of great intellect, but sorely lacking in the romance field?
Cindaís going to take a bit of a sabbatical while I work on my next book, which I like to think of as a nineteenth century true crime mystery. It concerns a lawsuit that lasted for over a quarter century, very famous in its day but now forgotten by most, between a very young woman and three big Wall Street insurance companies. The case is called Mutual Life Insurance Co. v. Hillmon, and arose because the young woman, Sallie Hillmon of Lawrence, Kansas, attempted to collect on three life insurance policies issued to her husband John. John had been on a winter expedition out to the wilds of southwest Kansas, looking for a place to start a sheep ranch, and his traveling companion reported that he had accidentally killed Hillmon while unloading their rifle from the wagon at their campsite. The insurance companies, smelling fraud (Hillmon had taken out a lot of insurance for a guy who was essentially a ranch hand) refused to pay. They claimed that the body was one of a young man that Hillmon and his accomplice had persuaded to join them on their journey, intending all along to kill him, dress him up in Hillmonís clothes, and leave his body behind to be taken for Hillmonís. The case had to be tried six times, and went to the U.S. Supreme Court twice. Itís a great story, and Iíve done enough historical research to be nearly certain that, contrary to the belief of most scholars of the case, the body was Hillmonís after all. I love the idea of this twenty-something waitress taking on the biggest corporations and most important lawyers of her generation and fighting them to a draw. Nonfiction is a new challenge for me, but Iím enjoying the work on this book very much.
Itís true Cinda does not have very much luck with love, and she deserves better (although some readers think she makes her own bad luck, and thereís something to that too.) I hope to do something about it when she returns, but you shouldnít make the mistake of thinking that my characters are altogether obedient to my will. Theyíve been around long enough to have minds of their own.
Mimi Wesson lives in Colorado, at Rancho Lobo y Mariposa, a llama ranch that she and her husband own and manage. She holds the titles of Professor of Law, Wolf-Nichol Fellow, Presidentís Teaching Scholar, and Senior Scholar of the Womenís Studies Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
As a scholar, Mimi is best known for her contributions to the debate about pornography in feminism and law; her work on the subject has been published in law reviews and in popular publications such as The Womenís Review of Books. Pornography and its relationship to free speech and to our troubled culture is the subject of her forthcoming book, Chilling Effect.
Mimi is an experienced trial lawyer as well; her courtroom experiences inspired her to write her first bestseller, Render Up the Body. It was sold for publication to HarperCollins in North America (1998), Headline Press in the U.K., Golmann Publishers in Germany, Editions Stock in France, and for other translations into Norwegian, Dutch, Portuguese, Hebrew, and Latvian. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in the U.S. and a finalist for the Colorado Book Award for Fiction. Her second novel, A Suggestion of Death, was released in 1999 in the U.K. and 2001 in the U.S., with various translations published in 2000 and 2001.
Both Mimiís earlier novels and her forthcoming book, Chilling Effect, are set in Mimiís hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Chilling Effect (University Press of Colorado) will be available in bookstores nationwide in September 2004.
You may have seen or heard Mimi on National Public Radio, NBC, CBS, ABC, MSNBC, CNN, or Court TV, with her observations and analysis of the trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Lynn Nichols, the Columbine shootings, the JonBenet Ramsey case, and other legal matters. She provides regular commentary to NPRís Weekend Edition Sunday.
If you get a chance to meet Mimi, donít be surprised if she pulls up on her favorite ride, a red Kawasaki Drifter 800.