Spoiler and Trigger Alert - this review contains spoilers and references to graphic acts contained in the book.
Much of the content on Robson Crim relates to legal cases and texts. My last few blawgs have been book reviews on practitioner’s handbooks. However, the law, especially the criminal law, can be a rather heavy topic, and every once in a while even the most hardworking practitioner or studious law student needs to sit back and take a break. An excellent way to do so is with a comfy chair, and a good novel.
The present blawg will review one such novel which might appeal to the legally inclined. The Law Professor- Wilful Blindness, by Lee Stuesser (Tellwell Books), follows law professor Andrew Sturgis as he tries to uncover the cause of a law student’s shocking and untimely suicide. Robson Hall alumni might recall Lee Stuesser, as he was once a member of our school’s faculty.
As the note at the end of the book will tell you, Mr. Stuesser is an experienced educator, having been a teacher before embarking on the path of a law professor, a path which he walked for over 30 years.
Before I go any further, I feel compelled to provide this warning: spoiler alert. For those of you who might be considering picking up a copy of Mr. Stuesser’s book for yourselves, you may wish to avoid reading beyond the next paragraph of this review, as the rest of it will reveal some elements of the novel’s plot that the interested reader may prefer to discover on his/her own. While I shall endeavour not to reveal too much, I feel that a fair book review is similar to fair exam comments: it should make clear, with reference to specific details, the reviewer’s reasons for coming to the conclusion that they did. In addition, the book and this review contain references to violence in the context of sexual assault. You have been warned!
As indicated above, Wilful Blindness follows Flemington University law professor Andrew Sturgis, a long time faculty member and former state prosecutor. The story takes place primarily in two locations: Flemington Minnesota, where professor Sturgis lives and teaches law at Flemington University Law School, and here in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The book begins with the tragic death of Allison Klassen, a young, beautiful, and much adored law student, who took her own life shortly before the start of her second year. Allison’s death is a mystery to all, as she had previously been an entirely healthy and happy woman, looking forward to her second year in law. Two days before her death, she had returned to Minnesota from Winnipeg, where she had attended a legal conference with another professor, Jerome Fraser, as his research assistant.
Professor Sturgis soon develops his first inkling that there may be more to this tragedy than meets the eye. Shortly after classes begin, he is visited by a friend and classmate of Allison’s, who reveals to Sturgis her suspicions that something terrible may have happened to Allison at the conference in Winnipeg, and that Professor Fraser may have been involved. This simple suspicion, a product of intuition as much as anything else, would lead Sturgis to do some digging of his own. What Sturgis finds is both shocking and disturbing in its own right, and causes the professor to arrive at a dreadful conclusion. Something terrible had happened to Allison Klassen in Winnipeg. She had been the victim of a horrific sexual assault at the hands of professor Fraser; and she had not been his first victim. Armed with his skills as a former prosecutor and a professor of the law of evidence, Sturgis and some like-minded associates continue to unearth more and more evidence of Fraser’s crimes, eventually developing a plan to bring him to justice.
This book is very much a legal drama. It draws on real-world legal principles in creating both the challenges faced by the protagonist and his solutions for overcoming them. Overall, I would describe this book in the same way that professor Sturgis describes Allison Klassen as a student in the novel: solid, but falling just short of the exceptional; a solid B or B+ performer.
Wilful Blindness is a particularly fun read for anyone with a legal background. As a law student, one cannot help but appreciate the criticisms of university administration and the academic system which Stuesser makes through Sturgis. I think we have all felt Sturgis’ exasperation and resignation with the system at some point, which makes the protagonist all the more relatable. In several cases the author includes short chapters explaining particular legal principles through the vehicle of Sturgis’ class lectures. Not only do these act as ingenious foreshadowing devices, but there is also an element of novelty in these chapters for both past and present law students, who will surely recall sitting through lectures on the same topics. This novelty is increased for those who, like me, are familiar with Winnipeg and the Robson Hall Law School, as both appear as settings in Stuesser’s book. Simply put, there is something cool about seeing the halls you have walked so often described in a novel.
What I appreciated most about Stuesser’s novel was its relative realism. In the present era, most legal and crime dramas resort to over-the-top cross examinations, violent police shoot-outs, and ridiculous convictions based on single pieces of circumstantial evidence. Stuesser presents his readers with a much more grounded and realistic crime-drama experience, in a way that still manages to be interesting and engaging. He relies on actual law and actual legal problems, but presents them in a simple and digestible way; much as one who spent his life teaching law might, unsurprisingly. I think this book also has great value as a window into the difficulties that surround investigating and proving sexual violence and misconduct, which has become all too common in our society.
That being said, there are some aspects of the book which, had they been done differently, I believe might have taken this novel above “solid” into the realm of excellence. I found that the author’s narrative voice often failed to portray the level of emotion that it could have at certain moments. The description of Allison’s funeral at the opening of the book, for example, seemed a bit too clean: her family was a little too stoic, her sister Meghan was a bit too brave and well spoken in the delivery of her comments before Allison’s casket. Another example can be found toward the end of the book, when Allison’s childhood friend Mark views crucial evidence of what really happened to her in Winnipeg and breaks down crying. These moments of extreme emotion were opportunities for Stuesser to really humanize his characters and to cause the reader to become further invested in both their pain and their cause. However, on my own view, Stuesser’s descriptions of these events felt somewhat distant, and lacked depth.
This is not to say that I believe the author is unable to convey emotional depth, or fails to do so at all in the book. I think that there were other points in the novel where this was done excellently. The story of Bruce the female golden retriever, for instance, and how she ended up with a male name, was precisely the type of brief aside which helps transform a character like Sturgis from a mere actor in a story into a living, breathing person in the mind of the reader. Rather, it seemed to me that Stuesser withdrew from his characters’ pain, instead of embracing and emphasizing its rawness and power.
I also felt that the character of Allison was too “perfect”. As a beautiful, smart young girl, who was deeply religious, adhered to a belief in abstinence until marriage and who never drank alcohol on principle, I felt that Allison conformed too much to the traditional image of an “idealized” sexual assault victim. Had Stuesser portrayed Allison as a girl who did enjoy a few drinks with friends, or who had participated in consensual sexual relations in the past, it would have made her a more believable and relatable victim. Such a portrayal could also have been a powerful statement that it is not only women like Stuesser’s Allison who deserve protection from the Frasers of the world. In this sense, I think Stuesser missed an opportunity with Wilful Blindness to make a real statement about society’s views on rape and victimization. In all fairness though, it is not the duty of fiction authors to challenge societal notions and values.
Overall, I would recommend giving Lee Stuesser’s Wilful Blindness a read. It is a fun read for anyone with a legal background, and will make for a refreshing change for anyone who might be tired of the absurdity which is the general hallmark of the crime and legal drama genre. While I felt that the author could have done a better job of conveying emotion at certain significant points in the story, and while I think that he missed an opportunity to make a powerful social critique, I also think that this was a very strong showing for an author’s first novel, and not every novel is bound to make some sort of wider social statement. Wilful Blindness is a solid, well written book, and I look forward to seeing how Lee Stuesser’s writing grows, should he decide to create further works. He is definitely an author to watch.