Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Preaching to the Corpse

The second book in Roberta Isleib's Advice Column Mystery series, Preaching to the Corpse (Berkley Prime Crime, 2007) does everything a second book in a series should do. I always look for four general developments in a series' installments, and if I find them in multiple books, I know I've found an author I like. Rather than summarize the plot (which you can easily look up on Google, just like Rebecca Butterman!), for this review I will outline the general criteria I look for in an ongoing series and then discuss how it relates to Preaching to the Corpse.

A. Development of the main character. In the series, Dr. Rebecca Butterman is the protagonist: a newly-divorced, smart and self-starting psychologist in Guilford, Connecticut. She's in private practice and teaches part-time at Yale, and she moonlights as an advice columnist ("Ask Dr. Aster") for a popular online magazine. Preaching, while it can be enjoyed as a stand-alone, develops Rebecca into a three-dimensional character first introduced in Deadly Advice. She is asked to take over the search committee for an interim pastor at the Shoreline Congregational Church after the mysterious death of its former chair, Lacy Bailes. She juggles her relationship with her sister, Janice, after deciding to track down their estranged father. She's forced to manage her ambivalent feelings for the married Detective Meigs as their relationship takes turns both tender and coy.

Rebecca shows some more vulnerabilities in this book which makes her more "real." She's a person we'd like to know and be neighbors with, to work with or share an office. She also seems to care less and less about writing her advice column. This does have the effect of making at least this reader a little less interested in the advice column, too. The author, Roberta Isleib is a psychologist herself, and she actually dispenses some very useful advice in the narrative passages of the book which careful readers will pick up on (wise ones will employ it!). Butterman is such a vivid character, and it occurred to me while reading that just being a psychologist is enough for Rebecca The series is strong enough to stand without the periodic (albeit less frequent) "Dear Dr. Aster" letters. Whereas in Deadly Advice the column provided motivation and motion for the action, here it feels not exactly ornamental but rather another task on Rebecca's already-full plate.

B. Development of the setting and environment. The small towns of New England, particularly the Connecticut shoreline, come alive in Preaching. It's winter so the roads are icy and snow is falling; the characters nurse colds and ailments; food is warm and appropriate to the season, and so forth. We have church potlucks, Christmas cookies, warmed-up soup and even a tea party. I am particularly drawn to the condominium complex setting: this is a very unique and "cozy" choice for Rebecca's home, and Isleib does a great job of evoking how it must feel to live there and the way that works into her character's life. That this setting is neither quaint nor idyllic but just plain old realistic has turned out to be part of Rebecca's identity and one of the strongest suits of the series.

C. A strong supporting cast with characters old and new. The best series writers have a set of characters that alternately emerge or play more of a background role depending on their role in the plot of the book. Recurring characters are helpful because they make us feel comfortable in the environment, and they tell us much about the protagonist (who they have some sort of relationship with). Preaching's main recurring supporting character is Detective Meigs, who this time is a little more willing (albeit begrudgingly) to suffer Rebecca's amateur sleuthing into the circumstances surrounding Lacy Bailes's death. We also encounter some of the condo residents again, and Rebecca's sister, but they have background role. There are many new characters, too, almost all associated with the Church in some way, but because Isleib ties up this puzzle so well it is doubtful we will (need) to see many of those folks again (but these are small towns, so we may).

D. A widening and deepening complexity. This is probably true of all of the above categories, but I separate it because it is the overall feeling I expect to have when I've finished the novel. I can begin to answer anthropological questions (with greater certainty) like: How do these characters assign meaning to their lives? Why do they make the choices they do? What kinds of food do they eat? How do they interact with people? What sorts of things are important to them, and why? If you can answer questions like those about the characters in a novel, you know the author is keeping up their end of the author-reader contract--and for that matter, so are you!

This very strong second installment is another great read from Isleib. Readers will be particularly pleased with the resolution, I think, as the perp is not someone I expected at all (I really want to say more about this but I can't because I don't want to commit a cardinal sin and drop any hints!!). There are many intriguing plot points about inner-church politics (even one with echoes of New Hampshire's Bishop Gene Robinson controversy). The writing is tight, the plot believable and I recommend this book.