Thursday, February 3, 2011

Counsel for the Defense

I haven't practiced law for over a year, but I'm tempted to hang a virtual shingle and start representing unjustly accused protagonists.

Take Alexander, for example.  He's a professor of surgery and a consultant.  He's fallen in love with Beth, the nurse hired to care for Alexander's sister, who's recuperating from an operation.  And then, when the sister no longer needs medical care, Alexander arranges for Beth to stay with the family looking after his nieces and nephews, all under the age of eleven.  They're good children, but bored with their father on an extended business trip and their mother still a bit under the weather.  Beth has been doing a great job caring for them.  She's good at her job and they like her.

Alexander is about to operate on a critical patient when he gets a phone call from the police.  The family sailboat is in a harbor miles from where it's normally docked.  All four children and Beth are on the boat but there's a storm raging and they all could quite easily have been drowned.  Alexander has to abandon his patient, rushes to the harbor and finds, by some miracle, that the children and Beth are safe.  But the eldest, Dirk, rattles off an explanation, something about how Beth convinced him and the other kids that she knew how to sail, only, of course, she doesn't know how to sail.

Alexander loses his temper with Beth.  She was supposed to keep the children safe, not take them out on a boat she can't handle in a storm that any experienced sailor would know spelled trouble.  He demands an explanation, but Beth says nothing.

When they get back to the house, Alexander has calmed down, although the details Dirk has added only make it look worse for Beth.  Still, there was that trouble with Dirk misbehaving a few weeks back, where it was clear that Dirk had lied when he'd suggested Beth had egged him on.  So Alexander thinks, there must be some explanation.  He takes Beth's hands in his and asks, gently, "Beth, will you not tell us what happened?  You had some reason..."

She says only, "Dirk told you -- I have nothing to add to that.  I'm sorry about your patient.  I hope you'll still be in time."

Okay, you're the jury:  Is Alexander guilty of failing to believe in his beloved?  Should he have rejected Dirk's repeated story of the events and concluded that Beth couldn't possibly have been on the boat when it was launched?

It's not quite a trick question, but there is some slight of hand at work.  I told the events from Alexander's POV.  We're more trusting of a character when we're in his or her POV because we think we'd know if there was an improper act or a bad motive.  I tried to be scrupulous about presenting the facts as Alexander knows them, but then I believe he's innocent or, at worst, complicit with Beth in screwing up their romance.

[For a lengthy (and I mean lengthy) discussion of Alexander's alleged crimes when you read the story from Beth's point of view, check out this review of Betty Neels' A Star Looks Down and the subsequent comment thread.]

Even in a book with very tight POV -- which I freely admit wasn't Betty Neels' strong suit, as there's more than a little omniscient narrator action thrown in -- we know the characters better than, say, a real jury would in a court of law.

The subject of sexual harassment came up over at The Uncrushable Jersey Dress recently as well.  That's a sore topic because Neels's romances so often have a significant disparity between the hero's economic and social status and the heroine's.  Bluntly, he's always richer than she is, is always at least a half-dozen years older, and often hires her in some capacity as a means of keeping track of her.

But we rarely worry about sexual harassment because we know from the heroine's POV that she doesn't feel pressured or trapped by her need for employment so that she has to be "nice" to him or risk losing her job.  (In fact, it's usually the opposite -- she's secretly in love with the hero, so working for him makes it seem all that much less likely he actually wants to have anything to do with her.)

Her confidence and comfort level reassure us that everything's fine.  Still, I wonder if the hero ever thinks, "I can't put the moves on her yet because she works for me..."  We rarely get his POV so who knows.

In Alexander's case, if Betty Neels had flipped over to his POV long enough for the reader to be reassured that he'd weighed all the evidence, had discounted completely Dastardly Dirk's version of events, and had counted on Beth to tell them all the truth -- then we'd forgive him and be a bit more peevish with Beth's decision to say nothing.  But, absent his POV, we jump to the conclusion that he must believe Dirk.

In fact, we're guilty of what we accuse him of doing:  we read more into the situation than the facts support.

The defense rests.


  1. Nice summation, counselor. Well done.

  2. Thanks, Barbara -- of course, you *would* say that. I think JoDee and Keira are the toughest nuts to to speak.

  3. Did Alexander get back in time to save his patient? If not, have family members spoken to an attorney about Alexander's potential liability in the death of their loved one? Has Alexander's professional reputation suffered as a result of his fleeing the OR? Perhaps if I read the review, I'll find the answers.

  4. Kathy -- Yes, the patient is saved. Understand that Alexander is in a hospital where there had better be back-up surgeons to deal with the emergency. (I never did medical malpractice -- for the plaintiff or defending the doctors -- but I can't believe the standard of care involves the ace surgeon always being available to the detriment of his own personal life.)

    At the end of the book, Alexander has had time to operate, check on his patient, do rounds, see more patients before he heads back to his sister's house only to find that Beth has left. No critically ill persons were harmed in the making of that particular plot point.


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